Snowpack Surge

Written by Jayson Jacoby March 03, 2014 09:01 am

Fifth-wettest February on record boosts snowpack from dismal to almost average


S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Valley fog rises to eventually engulf the prominence of Elkhorn Peak following a recent storm over Baker Valley and the high mountains.
S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Valley fog rises to eventually engulf the prominence of Elkhorn Peak following a recent storm over Baker Valley and the high mountains.

By Jayson Jacoby

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Northeastern Oregon’s snowpack was ailing, and February was the cure.

The start of one, anyway.

February not only ended the region’s four-month dry spell, it brought the anemic snowpack very nearly to average.

It was the fifth-wettest February since at least 1943 at the Baker City Airport, with a monthly total of 1.19 inches of precipitation.

October, November, December and January were all drier than average, and a persistent dry, cold pattern during January left the snowpack lagging.

At the start of February the water content in snow at 18 measuring sites across the region was 68 percent of average.

By the end of the month the water content had risen to 87 percent.

And even that statistic slightly understates the recovery.

The overall average is held back by a couple of lower-elevation stations that aren’t nearly as important, in projecting summer water supplies for irrigation and recreation, as measurements in the high mountains are.

And it’s those elevated stations where the snowpack made the most progress.

At Anthony Lakes, for instance, the water content leaped from 80 percent of average when February began to 121 percent of average at month’s end.

The current water content of 25 inches is the most at the site, in early March, since 2004 (27 inches).

Andrew Umpleby, who manages the Powder Valley Water Control District, watches one snowpack station in particular: Wolf Creek.

Statistics there give Umpleby the most accurate estimate of how much water will flow into Wolf Creek Reservoir this spring. That impoundment, along with its neighbor, Pilcher Creek Reservoir, supply water to farmers and ranchers in the North Powder area.

Umpleby said his outlook has improved dramatically over the past month.

“It’s looking very good,” he said this morning. “At the start of February things were looking very bad.”

Umpleby said the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency responsible for monitoring snowpacks, gives it a 50/50 chance that Wolf Creek Reservoir will fill this spring.

Umpleby said he’ll heed that prediction for now, although there is evidence to suggest the odds are slightly better that the reservoir will reach its capacity.

For one, the reservoir is holding more water now than it was a year ago. It was at about 25 percent of capacity a week ago, and Umpleby, who was driving to the reservoir to check the level this morning (there’s no automatic gauge at Wolf Creek), said he’s sure the reservoir has risen since then.

Second, the water content at the Wolf Creek snow-measuring station is about two inches higher than a year ago.

In 2013 the reservoir reached a maximum of about 70 percent of capacity, Umpleby said.

“Any more than that this year and I’ll be tickled,” he said. “I think it’s going to be better this year.”

Another bellwether site for forecasting the supply of irrigation water is Bourne, in the headwaters of the Powder River basin above Sumpter. Bourne’s water content is the most useful in predicting inflows into Phillips Reservoir, which stores irrigation water for about 30,000 acres in Baker Valley.

Bourne was at a dismal 61 percent of average when February debuted.

But during the next four weeks the water content nearly doubled, reaching 84 percent of average.