Spring is here! But what happened to winter?

March 31, 2015
Spring is here! But what happened to winter?
Spring in the Deschutes Basin

Spring is finally here, but what an unusual winter! Unseasonably warm temperatures resulted in very little snowpack and an average amount of precipitation that allowed reservoirs to fill in the Upper Deschutes Basin ahead of schedule.

What can we expect to happen with the river this year as a result? According to Kyle Gorman, Oregon Water Resource Department Region Manager, the flows in the Deschutes should be relatively normal this summer, but will depend on stored water to a greater extent than in a normal year where snowmelt provides much of the water supply during the late spring and early summer.

If the remainder of the winter and early spring continue to produce minimal snow followed by scant summer rainfall, levels in the reservoirs are likely to be lower after the irrigation season than in recent years.

That’s likely to create more pressure to fill them next winter. When flows in the Deschutes are held back for the winter to replenish the reservoirs it creates a potential for a significant impact on fish and wildlife in the fall.

Tumalo and Whychus Creeks are entirely dependent on snowmelt, so we will see lower than normal flows in both of these reaches as the irrigation season unfolds. But thanks to a number of conservation projects and several key instream leases, flows should hold around 10 cfs in Tumalo Creek and 20 cfs in Whychus.

On a positive note, Ochoco Reservoir is in better shape than it was at this time last year, giving a more positive outlook for water supplies instream in Ochoco Creek and on farms in the Crooked River Basin.

According to Brett Hodgson of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, weather driven variability in streamflows is a natural phenomenon to which trout in this area have been able to adapt. Consecutive dry years and seasonal flow management for irrigation are both factors that tend to have greater long-term impacts on fish and wildlife.

Prineville Reservoir is the wild card. If the reservoir doesn’t fill, this could affect the amount of stored water available to improve flows for fish and other wildlife, pursuant to recent legislation.

While officials say water supplies are fairly decent this year, we should still conserve water where we can. The big question is: what will happen next winter? If next winter brings very little precipitation, we could see very low water supplies, and that has the potential to dramatically impact the health of our rivers and streams.

One thing to remember is that variations in snowfall and overall precipitation in the Deschutes River Basin can vary dramatically. In the past decade, we’ve seen some great years – and a year like this.

What can we do? Deschutes River Conservancy is working collaboratively with all who have an interest in the river – communities, farmers and irrigation districts, fishermen, boaters and more – to ensure the health of the river and its unique ecosystems. Together we are identifying long-term solutions to ensure healthy ecosystems and economic benefits, regardless of the weather.

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An aerial view of a body of water.