Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

It was the second day of April and a frigid wind was pelting Wes Morgan’s face with snowflakes.

But this wintry display during the second week of spring didn’t bother Morgan.

Whatever effect April snow showers might have on May’s flowers, the more pertinent issue from Morgan’s perspective is that spring snowstorms increase the odds that streams will continue to flow well into summer.

Morgan, who manages the Burnt River Irrigation District in southern Baker County, had ample reason to worry about the water supply during much of the winter.

This January was much warmer than average across the region — at the Baker City Airport the average high temperature during the month was 42.9 degrees, tying 1953 for the warmest on record.

More troubling, though, for Morgan and other irrigation district officials was the scarcity of snow. The mountain snowpack, which is the main source of water not only for irrigation but also for recreation and fish, was about half of average.

The balmy trend continued through the first half of February.

But winter finally arrived, belated though it was.

Morgan said a series of storms in early March were especially beneficial in boosting the snowpack. Although the water content in the snow remains below average at most sites around Northeastern Oregon, the overall average is about 81 percent.

“And that snow is still up there,” said Morgan, the memory still fresh from his Monday visit to the South Fork of the Burnt River where he had to squint against the brunt of the wind-propelled snow.

“It’s not a disaster — we avoided that at least,” he said.

Unity Reservoir, the only source of stored water in Morgan’s district, is about 89 percent full.

Although weather of course has the greatest effect on snowpack, it’s not always the only factor.

Morgan said the 2015 Cornet/Windy Ridge fire, which burned 104,000 acres south and southeast of Baker City, has had a noticeable effect on the snow-measuring course just west of the Dooley Mountain Summit on Highway 245, along the divide between the Burnt and Powder River drainages.

There was no snow at the course earlier this week and Morgan said the relatively dry winter isn’t the only culprit.

Last year in early April there was no snow there, either, despite the prodigious snowfall that winter.

Morgan said the 2015 fire, which killed many of the conifer trees along and near the snow-measuring site, eliminated the shading effect of the foliage, which means the snow melts faster.

In addition, he said strong winds — and the Burnt-Powder divide is an especially blustery spot — coat the snow with black soot, which absorbs the sun’s heat and also accelerates snowmelt.

Lyle Umpleby doesn’t have to deal with the effects of Baker County’s biggest fire, but like Morgan he has endured something of an anxious winter.

Umpleby works for the Powder Valley Irrigation District, which includes Wolf Creek and Pilcher Creek reservoirs west of North Powder and the ditches they supply in the area.

Umpleby said the reservoirs are about 38 percent full, roughly 10 percentage points lower than they were at this time last year.

See more in the April 4, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.