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Snowpack makes a comeback
As February dawned, the weather in Baker County looked pretty much as it did a month ago.
Uneventful, in a word, with no significant storms in the forecast.
The area snowpack, by contrast, scarcely resembles its former self.
Which is a good thing if you happen to appreciate water.
The mountain snowpack — the largest and most important reservoir for this arid region — was a scrawny thing when January made its debut.
The water content of the snow (a more meaningful measurement than its depth) was barely half of average.
Less, in a few places.
But between the tranquil weather that marked the beginning and the end of January, a pair of potent storms transformed the snowpack from runty to respectable.
Overall, the water content increased from 56 percent of average to 79 percent.
The rise was greater still at some measuring sites.
At Taylor Green, near West Eagle Meadow in the southern Wallowas, the water content jumped from 62 percent of average Jan. 1 to 93 percent now.
The volume more than doubled during that period, from 5.7 inches to 13.5.
Schneider Meadow, near Fish Lake north of Halfway, made similar progress during January.
The water content there escalated from 9.2 inches (61 percent of average) to 19.5 inches (87 percent).
Conditions have improved in the Elkhorns, too.
The water content at Eilertson Meadow, along Rock Creek west of Haines, actually exceeds average by 8 percent — the only measuring site that can make that claim.
At Anthony Lake the water content is just 11 percent below average.
The burgeoning snowpack, combined with reservoirs that still had a lot of water left when the irrigation season ended last fall, means water supplies should be adequate, and might even be ample, this summer.
Phillips Reservoir is holding about 38,000 acre-feet of water now — 52 percent of its capacity.
That's similar to the levels for early February from the past few years, when the reservoir filled.
Thief Valley Reservoir already is full.
"I'm comfortable where we're at," said Jeff Colton, manager of the Baker Valley Irrigation District.
Colton doles out water stored in Phillips Reservoir to farms and ranches in Baker and Bowen Valleys.
Colton said he wasn't terribly anxious a month ago, despite the scanty snowpack, largely because the second half of winter typically delivers the heavy, wet snow that really fills reservoirs.
"My winter doesn't really start until late February, early March," Colton said. "We've still got a long ways to go."
On the negative side of the ledger, less of the melted snow will trickle into streams and reservoirs than in a typical year.
The culprit is the ground.
Unusually so — the soil resembles baby powder in places, said Travis Bloomer, who works at the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Baker City.
Bloomer's duties include measuring snow at several places around Baker County.
(Most of the measuring sites are monitored by automated devices called "Snotels" that beam their data via radio signals to the NRCS.)
Desiccated soil is analogous to a sponge, said Jon Lea, who works at the NRCS office in Portland.
"That sponge has to be filled up before the water starts running off into streams," Lea said. "When the soil is that dry you tend to get less runoff."
Which isn't to say any water is wasted.
The water that saturates the upper levels of the soil will eventually percolate into groundwater supplies which are vital in keeping streams flowing during summer, after the last vestiges of snow are gone.
In case you're wondering whether Bloomer had to dig through the snow to get a look at the ground, the answer is no.
Snow surveyors use a hollow aluminum tube that's plunged down into the snow until it hits the ground. Then they weigh the snow packed into the tube and, by means of a mathematical equation, they estimate the water content.
Frequently the tube digs an inch or two into the ground, leaving what surveyors call a "plug" of dirt lodged in the bottom of the tube. They examine that plug to see whether the soil is dry, and thus likely to absorb a lot of meltwater.
(The plug is useful in another way: it prevents the snow from sliding out of the tube before the weighing commences.)
Bloomer said he also noted another unusual phenomenon while measuring snow Monday and Tuesday.
At each site there was a significant ice layer in the snow — ranging from half an inch to one inch thick.
The presence of an ice layer is not surprising, considering January's weather trends, Lea said.
During dry spells, and especially when the temperature warms enough during the day to melt the top layer of snow, the daily freeze-thaw cycle can create a skim of ice that thickens each day.
The main effect of ice layers is to increase the danger of avalanches, Lea said.
When snow falls onto ice, a substance not known for an abundance of traction, the snow doesn't bond well and is more likely to slide, like skate blades on a frozen pond.
Ice layers don't, though, affect the rate at which the snow melts, Lea said.
As winter wanes, the snowpack tends to become isothermal — meaning the snow is about the same temperature from surface to ground.
During this process, any ice layers in the snow tend to melt, leaving a sort of homogeneous mush of soggy spring snow, Lea said.