Record water content in Dooley Mountain snowpack

April 06, 2006 12:00 am
Snow clings to a pine's needles atop Dooley Mountain, where the snowpack is above average at 42 inches deep. More important, however, is the snow's water content: at 17.2 inches, it beat the previous record of 15 inches set in February 2004. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Snow clings to a pine's needles atop Dooley Mountain, where the snowpack is above average at 42 inches deep. More important, however, is the snow's water content: at 17.2 inches, it beat the previous record of 15 inches set in February 2004. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

There's a reservoir atop Dooley Mountain, and it's never been deeper.

You can't fish or swim in Dooley's reservoir, seeing as how it's filled with snow rather than water.

But snow, of course, is just water waiting for a warm day.

And right now there's more water on Dooley than at any time since at least 1939, when federal workers first trudged through the mountain's forests to measure the snowpack.

On Monday, employees from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Baker City conducted the monthly survey on the mountain, which is about 15 miles south of town.

The snow was 42 inches deep.

That's quite a lot of snow by Dooley Mountain standards — in fact that 42-inch depth has been exceeded at just four monthly surveys since 1939.

But the crucial statistic — the one that in effect measures the volume contained in that frozen reservoir — is the snow's water content.

On Monday the surveyors calculated Dooley's water content at 17.2 inches. That's the most water ever measured on the mountain, surpassing the previous record of 15 inches, set on Feb. 24, 2004.

Although Dooley is the only one of the more than a dozen snow-measuring stations in Northeastern Oregon that has broken records this winter, the snowpack regionwide stands well above average.

The numbers seem especially impressive compared with those from last winter, when snow was scarce.

Out of 15 sites, 14 have a current water content that's at least twice as high as this time a year ago. Several of those have three times as much water as last year.

For instance Gold Center, which is near Granite, was nearly dry this time a year ago, with just .1 of an inch of water content.

This year the water content there is 13.9 inches.

It is because of such statistics that Jim Colton ponders a possibility that he hasn't dared hope for during the past five years: that Phillips Reservoir will fill.

Phillips, unlike Dooley Mountain, is a real reservoir. Its water irrigates about 30,000 acres of fields in Baker and Bowen valleys, part of the Baker Valley Irrigation District, which Colton has managed for more than 30 years.

During the past five of those years, though, a period in which the region's drought diminished a few times but never truly disappeared, Phillips has been but a puddle of its former self.

At full pool the reservoir impounds 73,500 acre-feet of water (one acre-foot of water would cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot).

The past few years, however, Phillips has barely reached the halfway point in June, when the reservoir normally reaches its high water mark.

But this year, due largely to the copious snowpack that has started to melt, the reservoir already is close to half full. Phillips was holding 30,000 acre-feet this morning.

"This might be the year we've been waiting for," Colton said earlier this week.

Dooley Mountain is downstream from the reservoir, so Colton can't capture the mountain's snowmelt.

But snowpacks — and their water content — are even deeper in the higher mountains upstream from Phillips.

An automatic snow-measuring station near Bourne, for example, recorded 18.7 inches of water content on Wednesday.

When that snow melts the water will flow first into Little Cracker Creek, thence into Cracker Creek, then into the Powder River and Phillips Reservoir.