Of the Baker City Herald

Snow arrived late in Northeastern Oregon this season, but a series of storms since Christmas has reversed the snowpack's sluggish start.

andquot;I'm certainly more encouraged than I was a month ago,andquot; said Jerry Franke, who as manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District monitors water levels at Unity Reservoir.

andquot;Things are looking a little better.andquot;

Better, but still not exactly good for Franke and his colleagues in the water supply business, who worry every winter that a shallow snowpack will turn their reservoirs into mudflats come July.

The pair of post-Christmas blizzards were welcome late gifts, but they weren't sufficient to offset an arid November.

Mountain snowpacks around Northeastern Oregon are still about 28 percent below average.

Of the 13 sites surveyed, Schneider Meadows north of Halfway posted the highest figure, 92 percent of average.

Just two sites have more snow now than a year ago Eilertson Meadow, in the Elkhorns northwest of Baker City, and Tipton Summit along Ore. Highway 7.

andquot;It's not as good as usual, but I'm satisfied with how things are going now,andquot; said Jim Colton, manager of the Baker Valley Irrigation District.

Colton's concerns are centered on Phillips Reservoir, like Unity a crucial source of irrigation water for downstream ranchers.

Two straight years of drought have left Phillips with less than 5,000 acre-feet of water full pool is 73,500.

For the reservoir to fill next spring, and thus supply Baker Valley irrigators with every drop of water to which they're entitled, this winter's snowpack probably will need to exceed average by at least 50 percent, Colton said.

Such a feat seemed impossible a few weeks ago, when snow dusted only the highest peaks of the Elkhorns and Wallowas.

Now that goal at least appears to bear some relation to reality.

andquot;We're getting some good snow up high, so it might all turn out OK,andquot; Colton said.

For all the attention they devote to snow, both Colton and Franke agree that the true savior for this season's snowpack might not be snow at all, but its liquid cousin: rain.

Before snow started falling in mid December, rain showers dampened the ground across much of the region.

Had that snow piled up instead on soil still dusty from the previous months of drought, much of the melting snow this spring would soak into the ground rather than trickle into reservoirs and the streams that feed them, Franke said.

Having the ground moistened before it's covered with snow can make a andquot;tremendousandquot; difference in how much water actually is available to sprinkle crops and water cattle the following spring and summer, he said.

Last year's situation at Unity Reservoir, and downstream along the Burnt River, illustrate Franke's point.

Snowpack in the mountains upstream from the reservoir was about 120 percent of average, he said.

Yet all that snow stacked up atop parched ground.

When the spring thaw arrived, runoff into the reservoir had dwindled to 60 percent of average, Franke said. In other words, only half the water contained in the bountiful snowpack actually was available to irrigate hay fields from Hereford downstream to Durkee.

This year, though, the ground was saturated before it disappeared beneath its seasonal blanket of white.

Franke's rain gauge at the base of Unity Dam collected 1.66 inches of precipitation in December, Franke said the first month since last spring that was wetter than average.

As important as soil moisture is for forecasting water supplies, Franke has little but his own experience to rely on.

Last year, for example, he knew the ground was dry when winter set in, but he didn't know how dry, and thus couldn't predict that the above-average snowpack would translate into a below-average water supply.

But Franke hopes that next year he'll know a lot more.

He said the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency that measures snowpacks, might install soil moisture measuring devices at its andquot;Snotelsandquot; the machines set up in mountain ranges across Oregon to measure the water content of snow.

andquot;Those would give us a good heads up on what we can expect,andquot; Franke said.