Snowpack is still low, but rain helps drought

March 8, 2014
Snowpack is still low, but rain helps drought

One pineapple express after another bringing warm rain across Oregon has helped boost reservoirs west of the Cascades and snowpacks in the northern mountains.

But U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Julie Koeberle says much of Oregon is still looking at water shortages this summer, particularly in the parched southern tier of the state.

The agency’s online reports Friday showed mountain snowpacks, the prime natural water storage system in the West, were still 30 percent of average in the southwestern Oregon basins for the Rogue, Umpqua and Klamath rivers. A few sites were the lowest since the 1950s, when the service first started keeping regular measurements, replacing previous lows in 1977 and 1963. The Mt. Ashland Ski Area has not gotten enough snow to open. Irrigators in the Klamath Basin are bracing for a second dry year in a row with even less water.

Things got better moving north, with the Willamette Basin at 51 percent, Central Oregon’s Upper Deschutes and Crooked River basins at 55 percent, and the northern flanks of Mount Hood at 73 percent. Snowpacks in the far northeastern corner of Oregon were the best, at 93 percent of normal.

In the southeastern corner of the state, the Harney, Owyhee and Malheur basins are all around 50 percent.

The storms in February and early March have been warm and plentiful, bringing more rain than snow to the region, Koeberle said.

Snow levels have hovered between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in recent weeks, higher than many of the passes over the Cascades.

Overall precipitation for the water year starting Oct. 1 was 62 percent as of this week in the Rogue-Umpqua Basin, 80 percent in the Willamette, 60 percent in the Coast Range, 64 percent in the Klamath Basin, and 80 percent in the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin.

The Bull Run watershed, which supplies Portland’s water, got more than 10 inches of rain in the first six days of March, making it the wettest spot in the state, Koeberle said.

The result has been the unusual condition of some flooding in the short term at lower elevations, but drought remaining in the long term, because soils still dry from a lack of rain in the fall are taking a while to soak up the water, she said. Because the ground didn’t get its traditional soaking from fall rains, the melting snowpack will tend to soak in, rather than running off into rivers.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has already declared droughts in Klamath, Lake, Malheur and Harney counties, all in the south, and a request from Crook County in Central Oregon is pending.

Koeberle said more drought declarations are likely to follow, particularly in counties in the Rogue and Umpqua basins.

The snowpack pattern mirrors the U.S. Drought Monitor map. Most of the southern half of the state is still in severe drought, while most of the coast and the northern part of the state are in moderate drought and the northeastern and northwestern corners and Hood River area are abnormally dry.

The rain has been good for the 13 major reservoirs in the Willamette Basin. The Army Corps of engineers reports overall the reservoirs were half full and on track to fill completely by the end of the rainy season. Dams in the Rogue Basin were 74 percent full and close to filling on schedule.

“We are looking good right now,” said Army Corps spokesman Scott Clemens.

As for the Columbia River, the current forecast has it running at 100 percent of normal this summer at The Dalles, up from 83 percent a month ago, said Karl Kanbergs, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydraulics engineer, in the reservoirs center. That’s in part credited to the water coming from rain and snow fall in the Rockies and Canada, where they have been much more plentiful this winter.

Koeberle said recent years with low snowpack at the start of March have seen improvement before the end of the rainy season.

Hopes for a turnaround next winter have been buoyed by the National Oceanic Atmospheric and Administration issuing an official El Nino watch on Thursday.

The periodic warming trend in the central Pacific Ocean traditionally means more rain for California, where the drought has been even more pronounced than in Oregon and Southern Oregon.

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