Lack of snow keeps forecasters concerned

Mar 29, 2018

Bend Bulletin

Lack of snow keeps forecasters concerned

Late-winter snow keeps Bend from setting snowless record

Long-awaited snow finally arrived in Bend in February, but it was too late, and far too little, to keep this winter from being significantly drier than average.

Through Thursday evening, the National Weather Service’s Pendleton office has recorded 4.3 inches of snow in Bend since Oct. 1, less than a fifth of what the city normally sees during a winter. John Peck, forecaster with the weather service, said that makes it the sixth-lowest snow total in the city since 1901, and the lowest since the famously dry 2015-16 winter.

“It just never got cold enough to generate much snowfall,” Peck said.

While the snowpack in the east Cascades is in better shape than Central Oregon’s low-elevation areas, and has seen an uptick since the middle of February, it remains well below average. Julie Koeberle, snow hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, said she was concerned about the snowpack in Central Oregon and throughout the state with summer around the corner.

“It would probably be best to plan for a dry year,” Koeberle said.

For much of the winter, precipitation and cold temperatures simply failed to line up in Bend and other low-elevation portions of Central Oregon. Temperatures during December averaged more than a degree below normal in Bend, but the days were primarily clear, with little precipitation.

Later in December, a high-pressure front settled over the California Coast, driving the winter storms that normally hit Central Oregon to the north for much of the winter, according to Marilyn Lohmann, hydrologist at the weather service’s Pendleton office. Less than an inch of precipitation fell in Bend in December and January, almost entirely as rain.

As of Feb. 11, only a trace of snowfall had been recorded in Bend. Had the pattern continued into March, it would have been Bend’s first snowless winter in recorded history, according to Peck.

However, Lohmann said the high-pressure front dissipated in mid-February, and the precipitation over the past six weeks has been more similar to normal.

“March was actually a pretty wet month,” Lohmann said.

The late snow was a particular boon for Mt. Bachelor ski area, which is finishing up its busiest March to date despite below-average snow totals overall, according to Drew Jackson, director of marketing for the ski area.

In general, more precipitation fell as snow in high-elevation areas of Central Oregon, resulting in snow levels that are closer to average than in Bend. However, the snowpack in the Upper Deschutes-Crooked River Basin bottomed out at 37 percent of normal in early February, according to numbers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of Thursday evening, the basin stands at just over two-thirds of its normal snowpack, following a series of late-winter storms.

“It just wasn’t enough to make up the deficit,” Koeberle said.

Thus far, the relative lack of snow has mostly not impacted Central Oregon’s large reservoirs, particularly those in the western half of the region. Wickiup Reservoir, on the Deschutes River, was virtually full as of Thursday, while Crane Prairie Reservoir stood at 90 percent full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

However, much of Central Oregon is mired in what the U.S. Drought Monitor — a weekly map of drought conditions across the country produced jointly by several federal agencies — classifies as moderate drought. And there’s reason to believe it could continue.

Peck said the weather service is forecasting a warmer, drier spring than usual in Central Oregon. Koeberle added that this could further diminish stream flows later this summer, forcing some water users to rely heavily on the reservoirs.

Koeberle said the beginning of April is typically the point when Central Oregon’s snowpack tends to peak, though she added that high-elevation areas can continue collecting snow until May.

“We’re all hoping for more spring-like weather,” she said.

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

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