Even after snow, Central Oregon still mired in drought

Feb 14, 2019

Bend Bulletin

Even after snow, Central Oregon still mired in drought

Much of Deschutes County mired in ‘extreme drought,’ among nation’s worst.

By Stephen Hamway

Cold, snowy storms pounded much of the Pacific Northwest, Central Oregon included, for a week, prompting winter weather warnings and canceling travel plans over the mountains.

By the time those storm cells passed through, they’d dropped more than four inches of snow in Bend and more in other parts of the state.

One thing the storms didn’t do, however, was make a measurable impact on Central Oregon’s long-term drought, at least according to the collection of agencies that study drought conditions.

Nearly all of Deschutes County, including Bend, remains mired in what the U.S. Drought Monitor classifies as “extreme drought,” the same category the region was in before the storms.

“You’re headed in the right direction, but there’s still a ways to go,” said Rich Tinker, author of the most recent Drought Monitor report, which was published Thursday.

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a weekly map of conditions that shows the portions of the United States that are experiencing drought conditions, with information about how severe those conditions are. The report is produced jointly by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Mitigation Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report pulls data from a variety of different sources, from the amount of water contained in snowpacks to stream flows to soil moisture, said Tinker, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center, which is based in College Park, Maryland.

These results are compared to historic averages across the country and indexed to demonstrate the level of drought at play during a specific period, Tinker said.

While the basic inputs remain the same, Tinker said the report changes what it looks at depending on the region and the time of year. He stressed that the report is not designed to be an objective look, but one that is reviewed by experts on the ground in each region.

“The bottom line is, I can look at all the numbers I like, but I really need sort of a ground truth,” Tinker said.

In Central Oregon, a cold, wet week has been the exception to a trend of warm, dry weather this winter. Jim Smith, forecaster for the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office, said a series of storms developed over the north Pacific Ocean, carried by a blast of arctic air, and traveled west-to-east across much of the state.

“One was moving through every 24 hours,” Smith said.

While the storms didn’t hit Central Oregon as hard as other parts of the state, they did boost the region’s February snow totals. As of Thursday, 7 inches of snow had fallen in Bend since the start of February — more than the city typically receives for the entire month.

Still, the storms did little to alleviate Oregon’s drought, according to the report. On Feb. 5, before the storms came through, roughly 90 percent of the state was mired in moderate to severe drought. A week later, that figure had dropped only to 88 percent. Nearly all of Deschutes County remained in extreme drought, a trait that it shared with less than 5 percent of the western United States.

While Tinker called the storms a good step on the path toward getting out of drought conditions, he said the Drought Monitor takes the long view in evaluating conditions. He said that’s especially true in Oregon, which is reliant on snow-melt replenishing the underground springs that feed the Deschutes River and others in the region. In Central Oregon, a series of dry winters, combined with warm springs and summers that cause the snowpack to melt quickly, have set the region back.

“The short-term (outlook) in your area isn’t too bad, but the long term is looking pretty bad,” Tinker said.

The storms did make an impact on Oregon’s winter snowpack. The snowpack that feeds the Deschutes and Crooked river basins stands at 85 percent of normal, up from 73 percent a week prior. Snow totals in Eastern Oregon are largely above-average for this time of year, and with more snow in the forecast for the upcoming week, Central Oregon’s snowpack has a chance to join them. Tinker said a wet winter, coupled with a cooler spring that allows the snow to stick around, could go a long way alleviating Central Oregon’s long-term drought woes.

“It’s been an abundant snowfall year, which is always a good thing,” Tinker said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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