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Snowpack Encourages Irrigators
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Jerry Franke fought the snow, and the snow won.
In a knockout.
But Franke didn't wince in pain as he took the 10-count.
Franke manages the Burnt River Irrigation District.
On Tuesday he straddled a snowmobile and steered the machine toward the headwaters of the Burnt River's South Fork, in the mountains southwest of Unity.
Franke was eager to measure the snow up there.
More snow now means more water for Unity Reservoir, which Franke manages, and more water for the dozens of ranchers who depend on melted snow to irrigate their fields and pastures come spring.
But Franke never reached his destination.
The deep drifts of soft snow deposited during last weekend's blizzard snared his snowmobile before the machine, which after all was made for just this sort of combat, could claw its way to the measuring site.
"The snow was deep enough, and powdery, that we couldn't get up there," Franke said.
Yet despite all the fresh powder that defeated Franke, the snowpack for all of Northeastern Oregon is still below average.
But only barely below.
The storm that slathered Baker Valley and other low-elevation places with snow also elevated snowpacks in the surrounding mountains to the highest level this year.
The water content in snow at 14 sites around Northeastern Oregon equates to 98 percent of the 30-year average (1971-2000).
When Jim Colton considers last winter's paltry snowpack, which hovered around the 50-percent-of-average line much of the season, he figures that almost average is sufficient reason to hoist a New Year's Eve toast.
Colton manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District.
He doles out water from Phillips Reservoir, on the Powder River about 16 miles southwest of Baker City, to thousands of acres of crop fields and hay pastures.
Colton, who has worked for the district since Mason Dam started impounding water in 1968, hardly remembers what the reservoir looks like when it's full.
Shallow winter snowpacks and persistent summer droughts over the past four years conspired to transform the reservoir, which holds 73,500 acre-feet of water at full pool, into a mere puddle that's holding less than 10,000 acre-feet now.
The reservoir hasn't reached even the half-full level the past two years.
Hence Colton's hope that last weekend's storm represents only the first salvo in a winter-long barrage of blizzards.
"I'm feeling pretty good about it," he said this morning. "I think we're going to get it this year."
But then Colton was optimistic at this time last year, too, and nature rewarded his enthusiasm by sending storms elsewhere for much of the rest of the winter.
"Last year the storms sort of forgot about us," he said. "Maybe this year they'll remember."
Statewide, mountain snowpacks stand at 106 percent of average.
Last year at this time, Oregon's snowpack was 64 percent of average, the third worst in the West.