Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Snowpack Makes Modest Gains

By Jayson Jacoby


Jeff Colton is in the water supply business which ought to mean, in these days of drought, that he's a worried man.

He's not exactly bubbling with enthusiasm.

But he refuses to give in to, as he puts it, "doom and gloom."

"I want to be optimistic, positive," said Colton, who manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District.

His perspective is not without logic.

Yes, the snowpack in Northeastern Oregon is below average - in some areas well below.

But it's equally true that, statistically speaking, the peak period for amassing snow won't start for a couple of weeks.

"Mid-February is about when I start to get good snow, and March usually is awesome," Colton said. "April 1 is my peak."

The irrigation district Colton manages has one reservoir: Phillips, in the Sumpter Valley about 15 miles southwest of Baker City.

Phillips hasn't been this low in the first week of February since 2008, when the volume was about 9,100 acre-feet.

(One acre-foot of water could cover one acre of flat ground to a depth of one foot.)

One key difference in 2008, though, is that the snowpack was much deeper.

On Feb. 1, 2008, the water content in the snow at a measuring site near Bourne was 14.8 inches.

This year the water content there is 6.7 inches.

Bourne, in the upper Powder River drainage, is the benchmark snow-measuring site for Colton.

Anthony Lakes and the rest of the east side of the Elkhorns - what we see from Baker Valley - is in effect irrelevant, Colton said, because the snowmelt there drains into areas far downstream from Phillips Reservoir.

Bourne, though, and the country around Cracker Saddle and Mount Ireland, drains into Cracker Creek and other Powder River tributaries that empty into the reservoir.

A year that offers a better comparison, in terms of both reservoir volume and snowpack in early February, is 2005.

That year the reservoir was holding about 14,300 acre-feet the first week of February - slightly more than the current volume.

The water content at Bourne, by contrast, was 5.4 inches - slightly lower than now.

The snowpack never gained momentum after its slow start in 2005, and neither did the reservoir.

Phillips reached a peak volume that year of about 40,000 acre-feet - 54 percent of full.

Kevin Shaw, an engineer for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (the snow-measuring agency), said that although the snow depth at Anthony Lakes is just two inches less than last year at this time - 54 inches compared to 56 - the water content, which is the more important figure, is 4.2 inches below last year's total.

"It's really light snow," Shaw said.

Even now, the water content at Anthony Lakes is just 20 percent below average for early February.

"We just have to hope we can catch some of these storms," Shaw said. "We might need to almost double our precipitation to reach a normal snowpack. That's tough."