Of the Baker City Herald

Jim Colton wanted, needed, pined for a record snowpack.

What he got was average.

And average, Colton said, just isn't good enough when a drought's on.

Colton manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District.

He expects the farmers and ranchers in the district will receive about as much water to wet their fields this year as they did in 2001.

But to provide that water Colton will have to sacrifice almost every drop he has available in Phillips Reservoir.

That means the reservoir, the district's lone storage facility, probably will shrink as drastically as it did a year ago.

And that means Colton again will thirst for deep snow when winter arrives and not just this year, either.

andquot;I need a couple of good snow years,andquot; Colton said this morning.

Phillips, which holds about 73,500 acre-feet of water when it's full, is less than brimming today, at 29,000 acre-feet, Colton said.

And for now that number is not increasing.

Colton said the creeks that flow into the reservoir are adding water at a rate of about 100 cubic feet per second (cfs).

But to meet the needs of irrigators with senior water rights, he has to release water from Mason Dam at a rate of 130 cfs.

Although it's too late to bolster the snowpack, Colton said a rainy May would allow him to store quite a bit more water in Phillips before summer starts.

Rain now would help in two ways.

First, it would mix with melting snow to keep streams running high.

Second, and more important, rain in the valleys could reduce irrigators' need for water from Phillips, allowing Colton to hold more in the reservoir.

He's not especially optimistic.

andquot;The forecast doesn't look real promising right now,andquot; Colton said.

The National Weather Service is predicting a chance of showers Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but little chance of rain any other time over the next week or so.

However, if you want rain in Baker County, May's odds are better than any other month's.

Over the past 60 or so years, May on average has been the wettest month at the Baker City Municipal Airport.

The average rainfall for the month is 1.41 inches, one of just two months that average more than an inch (June, at 1.39 inches, is the other).

The past three Mays have not lived up to the month's soggy reputation, though. Last year's total of .39 of an inch was the fourth-lowest on record at the airport, and it was preceded by .69 of an inch in 2000 and .57 in 1999.

Colton certainly would prefer a repeat of May 1998, when a record 4.20 inches of rain fell at the airport.

After last year's drought, the worst since 1977, Colton was pleased when heavy snow fell during much of December.

By the start of 2002 the snowpack in some parts of Baker County was more than twice as deep as normal.

But winter soon lost its momentum.

Since February the snowpack at Anthony Lakes, one of the region's bellwether sites, has hovered near normal far better than last year's dismal conditions, but far below what Colton had hoped for.

Workers from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) trudged through the snow for the season's final survey on Monday.

They measured 58 inches of snow at the survey site southeast of Anthony Lake, said Travis Bloomer of the NRCS.

The water content a measure of how wet the snow is was 33.4 inches, 107 percent of the long-term average.

That's an improvement over last year's May 1 figures of 45 inches of snow and 22.6 inches of water content, but this year's numbers are not even close to the record.

On May 1, 1965, for example, the water content at Anthony Lakes was 43.7 inches, the most for that date since snow surveying started in 1936.