SNOWPACK: Mountain moisture a touch below the long-term average
By JAYSON JACOBY
Snow is amassing in Northeastern Oregon's mountains in rather sluggish fashion, at least compared with last winter's barrage of boulder-burying blizzards.
But since the region's reservoirs still store millions of gallons of last year's liquid bounty, the plodding pace at which snow is piling up is hardly a disaster.
Right now the region's snowpack, which is based on measurements taken at 18 sites spread among Baker, Union, Grant and Wallowa counties, stands at about 83 percent of the long-term average.
During the drought that dominated the region's weather from 2001-05, such a statistic would have worried Rick Lusk, Baker County's watermaster.
Exactly one year ago, for instance, Phillips Reservoir, which supplies irrigation water to about 32,000 acres, mostly in Baker Valley, was about 14 percent full.
An 83-percent snowpack wouldn't have filled Phillips last year. Fortunately, last winter's snowpack surpassed average by about 20 percent.
Today the drought's over, and Phillips is almost half full.
An 83-percent snowpack, though less than spectacular, would at least satisfy Lusk.
"If we have a year that's 85 percent to 95 percent on snowpack, we will probably end up doing about the same as last year as far as (water) distribution," Lusk said Thursday.
And in this case staying the same is a good thing, because last year was the first year since 2000 in which most water users got all or at least most of the gallons to which they're entitled.
The current 83-percent reading actually underestimates the snowpack because the figure doesn't factor in the full fallout from Wednesday's storm.
Although most of that fallout was in liquid form at lower elevations, including Baker City, the mountains, which is where the 18 measuring sites lie, mostly got snow.
Quite a lot of snow, in some places.
Ski Anthony Lakes, for instance, reported nine inches of new snow.
But the snow-measuring station that's less than half a mile from the ski area is one of five sites in Northeastern Oregon where surveyors gauge the snow by (gloved) hand, once per month, rather than rely on automated devices called which measure the snow every hour and report the results, via radio signals, to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Portland.
The bottom line, then, is that the "current" snowpack statistics for the Anthony Lakes site, and for the four other manually-measured stations, aren't current at all.
Employees from the NRCS office in Baker City measured snow at three sites Anthony Lakes, Little Alps and Little Antone on Dec. 28. They visited the two other stations, at Dooley Mountain and Eldorado Pass, on Dec. 29.
The snowpack at Anthony Lakes on Dec. 28 was barely half of average.
Wednesday's storm certainly boosted that figure.
The region's 13 Snotels, by contrast, are always on duty, so their statistics do account for the effects of this week's snowstorm.
Those effects were significant in many places.
Consider, for instance, the Snotel nearest Baker City at Eilertson Meadow, along Rock Creek in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines.
On New Year's Day, before the storm, the water content of the snow at Eilertson (snowpack is based on water content rather than depth) was 4.6 inches. That's about 2 percent below average.
It's no coincidence, then, that the snowpack at each of the five manual stations is below the average for the region as a whole.
Wednesday's storm elevated the water content at Eilertson to 5.6 inches, which is 12 percent above average.
The blizzard boosted the water content at Schneider Meadow, near Halfway, by a full inch, from 14.4 inches to 15.4.