By Jayson Jacoby
The brown swathes on the shoulder of Hunt Mountain tell the troubling tale.
Snow is scarce.
Slopes that typically are bright white from Thanksgiving until April or May are conspicuous in their dullness.
With only a slight chance of snow the rest of 2013, it's all but certain that the final three months of the year will rank as the fifth-driest autumn on record at the Baker City Airport, where records date to 1943.
Total precipitation for the three-month period is 1.12 inches.
That's less than half the average of 2.49 inches. Just four other years had more parched conclusions:
andbull; 1976 - 0.76 of an inch
andbull; 2002 - 0.89
andbull; 1959 - 0.91
andbull; 1989 - 1.11
The situation is more than a statistical anomaly.
Following an arid spring and summer that left the region's reservoirs depleted, a bountiful winter snowpack is needed to stave off possible water shortages next year.
Phillips Reservoir is at 14 percent of its capacity. Unity Reservoir is at 16 percent, and Owyhee Reservor a meager 8 percent.
It's still early in the snowpack season, to be sure.
Generally speaking, the bulk of the winter's snowpack accumulates during February and March.
The results so far are hardy reassuring.
The average for the snowpack in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha basins is 73 percent of average.
That's inflated considerably, though, by three sites high in the Wallowas - Aneroid Lake, Mount Howard and Moss Spirings - where the snowpack is above average.
In Baker County, though, the snowpack is lagging well behind.
At Eilertson Meadow in the Elkhorns west of Haines, for instance, the snowpack is just 28 percent of average.
The weather pattern responsible for the shortage of snow has also had a detrimental effect on air quality, especially in valleys such as Baker Valley.
A persistent temperature inversion has trapped cold air in the valleys and allowed smoke and other pollutants to degrade the air quality.
The air quality index (AQI) in Baker City has been in the moderate category for 25 of the past 32 days, and on more than 45 days in the past two months.
For all of 2012 the city had just 26 days with an AQI.
Health officials don't consider the moderate category a major problem, however.
The AQI has six levels: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.
The highest AQI for Baker City this fall was 81, on Dec. 23.
The moderate range is from 51 to 100 (50 or below is the good category).
With chilly air stuck in the valley, temperatures have been well below average this December.
The average high temperature, through Sunday, was 30.3 degrees.
That's below the long-term average of 35.6 degrees, and the lowest average high for December since 1985, when the average was 27.0.
The average low is 8.4 degrees, the lowest since December 1990 (6.7 degrees).
The long-term average low for December is 18.1 degrees.
The National Weather Service predicts a slight chance of rain or snow Tuesday, and again starting late Thursday. But no major storms are in the forecast.