Of the Baker City Herald

Jerry Franke has been seeing red all winter.

Last Tuesday morning he woke up and saw white.

Snow, to be specific.

Only an inch had fallen overnight at Franke's home just below Unity Dam, but snow of any depth has been so rare a sight this season that even a dusting seemed noteworthy.

But then Franke pays more attention to snow than does the average person.

He is manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District.

Franke watches over Unity Reservoir, whose water irrigates hay fields along the Burnt River from above Hereford to below Durkee.

And most of that water starts as snow.

Hence Franke's concern about this winter's unusual scarcity of frozen precipitation.

The mountain snowpacks that supply water to Unity and several other reservoirs across the region more resemble mole hills this winter.

Nowhere is the water content more than 80 percent of average, and in several spots it's less than half.

(Water content is the amount of water that will trickle downstream when the snow melts, and is a more accurate predictor of summer water supplies than is snow depth.)

Yet Franke remains optimistic.

andquot;We still have six weeks in which we could get a lot of snow,andquot; he said. andquot;I think it's too late to catch up (to average), but I don't think it's too late to fill the reservoir.andquot;

Unity, which has failed to fill just twice in its more than 60-year history, is about 35 percent full, Franke said.

About 2,650 acre-feet of water flowed into the reservoir during January, he said 74 percent of average.

Franke hopes last week's storm, which surprised meteorologists, signals the start of a snowy trend.

Although the flakes followed a relatively narrow path the storm dumped more snow on the Baker and Grande Ronde valleys than in the normally snowbound Pine Valley, for example they had a significant effect on snowpack statistics in some places.

For example, at Eilertson Meadow, in the central Elkhorn Mountains about 15 miles northwest of Baker City, the water content rose from an even 4 inches the morning of Feb. 3 52 percent of average to 5.1 inches a day later almost 64 percent.

At Wolf Creek, in the northern Elkhorns, the storm boosted the water content from 6.8 inches to 7.6 inches from 61 percent of average to 68 percent.

Even at that rate the region is several such storms short of boosting snowpacks to average.

Since last week's surprising snowfall not a single flake has fallen in Eastern Oregon. The snowpack has shrunk in most places during that time, negating some of the benefits of the recent storm.

And the National Weather Service predicts no chance of precipitation, in any form, for at least the next five days.

andquot;Regionwide it's looking really thin,andquot; said Travis Bloomer, who works at the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Baker City.

Measuring snow is one of Bloomer's jobs.

It's a task left mostly to machines these days.

The snowpack statistics from Eilertson Meadow and Wolf Creek, for example, were reported via radio signals from andquot;Snotels.andquot; These machines, installed and maintained by NRCS technicians, don't actually plunge a yardstick into the snow and read a number.

Rather, Snotels weigh the snow, and a computer calculates from the weight the water content.

Bloomer and his colleagues still measure snow the old-fashioned way in a few places, although they use a hollow aluminum pole rather than a wooden stick.

One of those places is a meadow about a half-mile southwest of Ski Anthony Lakes. NRCS employees first measured snow there in the 1930s.

As of Feb. 1 the snow in the meadow was 38 inches deep, and the water content 12.6 inches, Bloomer said.

That snow depth is among the shallowest for the first of February since NRCS established the Anthony Lakes measuring site in 1936.

In only six of the years since then have the agency's surveyors found less snow.

But the water content of 12.6 inches, although 25 percent below average, is much closer to normal than the snow depth is.

The reason, Bloomer said, is that the snow is wetter than normal across Northeastern Oregon, a result of recent mild temperatures that caused melting, and rain that further saturated the snow.

Although Bloomer and Franke would prefer snow to rain, they agree that a heavy, wet snowpack is a better sign for water users than the dry, powdery snow skiers pine for.

Equally important is that the ground beneath the snow is soggy, Franke said.

Because the soil already holds a lot of moisture, when the snow melts this spring most of it will flow into streams and reservoirs, Franke said.

When the ground is dry, as it was last winter, the parched soil acts like a sponge and absorbs much of the runoff, he said.

That replenishes groundwater supplies and keeps springs flowing, but it doesn't much help ranchers and others who need the water in reservoirs.

Bloomer said the news also is good for people who rely on winter snowpacks for summer water, but who don't live downstream from a reservoir.

For them, the key factor is not that the ground is damp, but that it is not frozen, Bloomer said.

When snow melts onto frozen ground, most of the water runs straight into streams and reservoirs, he said, leaving little water available above the reservoirs by summer.

But thawed soil will soak up runoff readily, Bloomer said.

The ground will releases that water gradually, keeping streams flowing through summer even upstream from reservoirs, he said.