Snowpack is on track

By Jayson Jacoby February 06, 2013 09:46 am

Submitted photo Kevin Shaw weighs snow to determine its water content.
Submitted photo Kevin Shaw weighs snow to determine its water content.
By Jayson Jacoby

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Travis Bloomer wore snowshoes to measure snow, which sounds logical but in his case turned out to be superfluous.

Not because the snow was scarce.

It just was so, well, soft.

Even by snow’s less-than-rigid standards.

“It was bottomless, basically,” said Bloomer, who works for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Baker City.

Until his snowshoes smacked into the frozen ground, anyway.

The abnormally dry, powdery snow was a noteworthy part of the monthly survey of the snowpack around Baker County.

Bloomer and his NRCS colleague, Kevin Shaw, measured the snow at six sites, three in southern Baker County on Friday, and the three others, all in the Elkhorns northwest of Baker City, on Monday.

In fact the pair didn’t merely measure the snow in the conventional sense of finding out how deep it is.

Another, more important calculation is the snow’s water content.

This is the vital statistic because it indicates how much water will flow into streams and reservoirs this spring and summer. And the snowpack is by far the largest source of water around here for irrigation and recreation.

Generally speaking, Bloomer said, the outlook “is pretty good.”

The water content, averaged among 18 measuring sites (12 of these have sensors that automatically record the snowpack) in the region, is about 9 percent below average for early February.

“It’s nothing that can’t be made up,” Bloomer said. “We could certainly catch up to average.”

His optimism is based in part on the timing.

Early February is relatively early in the snowpack season. March often is the snowiest month in the mountains (though usually not in the valleys), and higher elevations, such as Anthony Lakes, typically reach the apex of the year’s snowpack around the first of April.

“We have another at least one-third of our season that we can bank on,” Bloomer said.

On the negative side of the ledger is that flour-like snow that Bloomer and Shaw floundered in.

Powdery snow, though beloved by skiers and snowboarders, is, relatively speaking, dry.

This is measured both in the snow’s water content and in its density.

The density of the snow in southern Baker County, including measuring sites at Barney Creek southwest of Unity, and at Eldorado Pass along Highway 26, was about 24 percent, Bloomer said.

A density of about 30 percent is more typical for early February, he said.

The density of snow in the Elkhorns was right at the 30-percent mark.

Bloomer attributes the dry snow in the southern part of the county to the prolonged cold, dry weather that followed the snowstorms of late December and early January.

At the higher elevations of the Elkhorns, though, a temperature inversion during much of January boosted temperatures there into the 40s on several days when the valleys stayed in the teens or low 20s.

The warmer temperatures melted the surface of the snowpack, which then froze each night.

These freeze-thaw cycles form layers of ice in the snowpack that not only add density — and keep snowshoes from plunging through, as Bloomer can attest — but they keep the snow from melting as rapidly come spring.

That could be crucial in ensuring a reliable supply of water this summer, he said, because the ground at the snow-measuring sites in the Elkhorns was quite dry.

Dry soil tends to absorb a lot of the melting snow, which is good for replenishing groundwater but at the expense of streams, reservoirs and the other surface sources that farmers, anglers and boaters depend on.