Snow hits near-record levels in spots
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Got a groundhog on your gift list this Groundhog Day?
Forget the sunglasses.
Spring for a snow shovel instead.
The weather-forecasting rodents would need to do a fair piece of digging before they could even start searching for their shadow today in Northeastern Oregon.
A parade of January blizzards has pushed the region's mountain snowpack well above average and even to an all-time record in one place.
That's Dooley Mountain, about 15 miles south of Baker City.
Federal snow surveyors first poked around in Dooley Mountain's powder in 1939.
They've returned once a month every winter since, but never in those 67 years did they find more snow on Dooley Mountain than they found on Monday.
The snow surveyors' measuring pole plunged through 46 inches of snow before its sharp tip gouged the ground.
That equals a snow-depth record set twice before: on Feb. 29, 1952, and Feb. 26, 1993.
And the 46-inch figure doesn't include the remnants of the snowstorm that swept through Tuesday evening, said Travis Bloomer, who works at the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service's Baker City office.
That agency, formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service, tracks snowpacks across the West.
Although Dooley Mountain is the only local snow-survey site that has tied its all-time record for snow depth this winter, the current snowpack at all but one of 18 other sites in the region exceeds the long-term average.
"It's a pleasant surprise to me any time we're over 100 percent anywhere in Baker County," Bloomer said Wednesday. "We hope this will continue."
This winter has surpassed last
But even if storms start bypassing Baker County, this winter, though still short of the halfway point, already has surpassed its predecessor in the snowpack rankings.
At Anthony Lake, for instance, snow surveyors calculated a water content of 19.8 inches on Friday, Bloomer said. Friday was two blizzards ago.
(Water content, not snow depth, is the statistic federal officials rely on to gauge the snowpack. Dooley Mountain's 46-inch snowpack had a water content of 14 inches, the second-highest total ever for that site.)
Last winter the highest water content measured at Anthony Lake was 18.7 inches and that mark wasn't reached until early May. The water content at Anthony Lake at the end of January 2005 was a meager 9 inches.
The situation is similar throughout Northeastern Oregon.
Each of the 19 survey sites boasts a higher water content today than it did a year ago.
Much higher, in most cases.
Dooley Mountain's 14-inch water content nearly triples the 5.4-inch figure from a year ago.
The discrepancy between this winter and last looks even more dramatic at Eldorado Pass, a snow-survey site along U.S. Highway 26 between Unity and Ironside.
A year ago surveyors measured a mere .8 of an inch of water content at Eldorado Pass, 25 percent of the long-term average.
On Monday again, before the most recent snowstorm the water content at Eldorado Pass was 6.9 inches more than twice the average, and an increase of 862 percent compared with a year ago.
Here's another example of how little this winter has in common with last:
Last year only one of the 19 survey sites had a water content of more than 10 inches at the dawn of February.
Today, 16 of the 19 sites exceed the 10-inch mark (and of the three sites that don't, one is at 9.9 inches).
This could be the year for irrigators
Jim Colton has dreamed about this sort of winter for several years.
Colton manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District. Much of the water that sprinkles crops on about 32,000 acres comes from Phillips Reservoir, the Powder River impoundment in Sumpter Valley, about 16 miles southwest of Baker City.
Phillips hasn't filled, though, for the past five years, a period dominated by drought rather than deluge.
In fact the reservoir has barely exceeded the half-full mark during the dry spell, and farmers and ranchers have settled for less than half the water they're entitled to.
But 2006, Colton hopes, "could be the year."
If the snowpack stays well above average well into spring, then Phillips could reach its bank-full level 73,500 acre-feet of water by June, Colton said.
Right now the reservoir holds about 12,700 acre-feet.
"The snowpack looks good now, but we need every bit of that and more," Colton said. "A lot of things could still happen."
A parched February, for instance.
February is, on average, the third-driest month at the Baker City Municipal Airport.
Colton, however, is counting on a soggy spring.
And in this case he'd relish a repeat of 2005, when the spring was much more moist than the winter.
By April it's valley rain, not mountain snow, that most benefits Phillips, Colton said.
When rain dampens farmers' fields, Colton needn't spill much water from the reservoir.