Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

For the first time in more than a year, no part of Baker County is in a drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor made that official on Thursday when it released its weekly drought map.

Although most of Baker County is still designated as “abnormally dry” — the exceptions being the northeast and northwest corners, which are rated as normal — the shades of brown and red that denote increasing drought severity are conspicuous by their absence.

This week’s map is the first since Jan. 9, 2018, that didn’t paint at least a small part of the county in one of those hues.

By the second week of last January, most of the county was in a “moderate” drought. That’s the least serious of the four categories of drought, which, in escalating severity, are “severe,” “extreme” and “exceptional.”

By August, which was marked by record-breaking high temperatures and a dry spell at the Baker City Airport that started in late June and extended for more than 65 days, the drought was rated as severe for much of the county.

Both the state and the federal governments declared a drought emergency in the county.

The situation remained relatively static during the fall and into January, which was warmer and drier than average, raising the prospect of a second consecutive below-average winter snowpack.

But in the first week of February a dramatic shift in the weather pattern — not just in Baker County but across much of the West — ushered in a prolonged period of cool temperatures and frequent precipitation, most of which fell as snow.

The first map to show a major change was issued Feb. 26. Most of Baker County had been downgraded from severe drought to moderate.

The wintry stretch extended well into March. And although the National Weather Service is forecasting dry and warmer conditions for the next several days, the storms of the past several weeks have buoyed the hopes of farmers, ranchers and others who depend especially on mountain snowpacks to fill reservoirs and keep streams flowing through the irrigation season.

“It looks a lot better than last year,” said Frederick Phillips, who owns a cattle ranch in Keating Valley, about 20 miles east of Baker City. “I think we’re going to be in for a good water year this summer.”

Across Northeastern Oregon the water content in the snowpack is about 27 percent above the long-term average.

But the situation is even more promising in Baker County’s mountains, where the water content at a few sites is nearly twice the average — and almost three times what it was at this time a year ago.

The bellwether in this respect is Eilertson Meadow, in the Elkhorn Mountains about 16 miles northwest of Baker City.

The water content there on Thursday was 17.2 inches — the most measured at the site since early April 1983, when it peaked at 21.5 inches (the automated snow-measuring station at Eilertson Meadow was installed in 1980).

The 17.2-inch figure is 95 percent above average for mid-March. A year ago the water content was just 5.4 inches.

“It looks like a great snowpack and a great water year,” said Curtis Martin, a rancher who lives near North Powder. “That certainly wasn’t the case at the end of January.”