January 20, 2016

NRCS Snowpack Report for January


Mt. Bachelor Snow Report:

Powder; Snowline: 1740m. Snow Depth: 97"/base; 119"/summit.

Heavy snow is forecast for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, January 21-23, with snow line falling to resort level.

Albeit a dry January in Central Oregon, with less precipitation so far this month, December was one of the wettest in terms of rain in western Oregon and snowfall in the rest of the state. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is part of the US Department of Agriculture, keeps track of the snowpack as a means of forecasting overall water needs in the region. The NRCS – which reports on snowpacks once a month from January to June -- has released its latest findings as of Jan. 1 and there was good news to report. Most snow measurement sites across the state reported above-normal snowpack: 138 percent of normal compared to last year at this time when it was only 53 percent of normal. With drought conditions in the mountains and desert, this is good news for everyone including farmers and ranchers, sportsmen, and conservationists who watch over our streams and rivers.

The NRCS is optimistic about the state's streams and rivers, saying that the current level of precipitation should result in "normal to well above normal" stream flows for the 2016 summer season. If winter continues to bring snow to the mountains, then the water supply will remain adequate for the drier and warmer summer months to come. This is good news for rivers such as the Lower Deschutes where emergency fishing regulations had to be imposed to protect resources. Rivers, including the Upper Crooked in the Ochoco National Forest, were the lowest levels seen in many years, which put a huge strain on native Redband trout. Statewide, stream flows were slow, water temperatures rose, and there were numerous documented examples of fish dying because of the conditions. More snow will result in all water needs being met and fewer forest and rangeland wildfires in the summer and fall of 2016.

The wettest locations in Oregon in December were the Rogue and Umpqua Basins where NRCS reports that 200 percent of average precipitation fell in those areas. The Rogue Basin monitoring station had the highest snow water content, with snow that measured 14 times more than last year. The lightest precipitation fell in northeast Oregon in the Grande Ronde, Powder, and Imnaha regions but was still well above average at 160 percent. As of Jan. 1, the Harney Basin had 186 percent of normal snowpack, which was the highest in the state with respect to normal. The lowest snowpack is in the Hood, Sandy, and Lower Deschutes Basin but is still 117 percent of normal.

Thus it appears that December's snows have enabled us to dodge a bullet. However, recent hot summers and dry conditions have been detrimental to reservoir storage around the state. Remember the low levels of Wickiup and Detroit Reservoirs this past summer and fall? Lake Shasta in northern California was almost non-existent in many areas. Stumps and snags were visible everywhere and boat ramps were useless in many cases. Marsh lands such as Malheur Lake in Harney County saw severely shrinking shorelines. There was such high demand for water that reservoirs were drawn down to levels not seen in many years. Even though snowfall is plentiful right now, many of Oregon's reservoirs are currently below average for Jan. 1.

For now, the good news is that temperatures in the high elevations have remained cold, holding the December snowpack and avoiding early melt and runoff. If weather patterns match those of a few years ago, February, March, and even early April may see more snow in the mountains with high water content and good retention. Forecasts call for above-average temperatures for the next three months, which may be detrimental to the snowpack at higher elevations. Amy Burke, hydrologist for NRCS snow surveys, says, "This has been a great start to the year, but it's real early. We need more storms and snow before we're in the clear, but for now we're cautiously optimistic."

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