Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

When Jeff Colton looked at the shrunken Phillips Reservoir in late January, more a puddle than the oversized pond it’s supposed to be, he was worried.

Two months later the reservoir is still pretty puny.

But Colton feels ever so much better even as he gazes across the diminished surface of the impoundment.

“That was scary back in January,” said Colton, who as manager of the Baker Valley Irrigation District distributes water stored in the reservoir on the Powder River about 15 miles southwest of Baker City.

“I was sweating bullets.”

That water nourishes crops on more than 30,000 acres, mainly in Baker Valley, and the reservoir is a vital cog in the county’s irrigation system.

Statistically speaking, the situation at the end of January was dire enough to justify Colton’s concern.

On Jan. 31 the reservoir was holding slightly less than 6,400 acre-feet of water — about 8 percent of its capacity.

Only twice since Mason Dam was finished in 1968 has Phillips been lower on the final day of January — 2002 (4,900 acre-feet) and 1989 (4,233 acre-feet).

But then the weather turned.

Which is to say, winter made its belated arrival.

It was the wettest February on record at the Baker City Airport, with a precipitation total of 1.92 inches.

The storms that soaked the airport with rain and snow delivered mostly the latter to the mountains above Phillips — a key trend because Colton relies on that snowpack to replenish the reservoir each winter.

As of this morning, Phillips was impounding about 13,400 acre-feet.

That’s still well below average for early April.

But one reason the reservoir has been relatively slow to refill, Colton said, is that persistent cool weather has retarded the rate of snowmelt in the mountains.

From his perspective that snow equates to money in the bank.

“The reservoir is still low, but I think it’s going to be a good water year,” Colton said in a cellphone interview Tuesday morning.

He was at that moment preparing to climb aboard a snowmobile and ride with one of his colleagues, Wes Morgan, to measure snow at Barney Creek in the headwaters of the South Fork of the Burnt River southwest of Unity.

Morgan manages the Burnt River Irrigation District, and the South Fork supplies much of the water for Unity Reservoir, that district’s sole storage for irrigation water for the Burnt River Valley extending clear to Durkee.

Morgan’s situation is rather different in that Unity Reservoir has about one-third the capacity of Phillips.

Unity Reservoir has failed to fill only twice since Unity Dam was finished in 1938.

Unity Reservoir is about 65 percent full today. Morgan said he is releasing water through the dam at about half the rate it’s entering the reservoir, to prevent it from filling too quickly this spring and increasing the chance of flooding farmland below the dam.

Colton, meanwhile, is trying to trap as much water as possible in Phillips Reservoir.

He’s releasing just a comparative trickle of water from Mason Dam — 6 cubic feet per second (cfs).

(The Powder River in Baker City is flowing at a much higher rate — about 100 cfs — due to snowmelt from areas below the reservoir.)

Colton said it’s impossible to say now how high the reservoir will rise through the spring and into early summer.

Multiple factors will affect its peak storage level, including how quickly the mountain snowpack melts, how much of that snow soaks into drought-parched soils rather than flowing into the reservoir, and how much demand there is for irrigation water during spring.

The latter factor will be affected largely by the weather.

Generally speaking, the more rain that falls during April, May and June, the less water Colton needs to release from the reservoir for irrigation.

No wonder, then, that he would prefer the cool, damp pattern that has prevailed the past two months persist.

March couldn’t maintain February’s record-setting pace in that regard, but it was wetter than average.

The March precipitation total of 1.17 inches was 30 percent above average.

Although that ranked only as the 11th-wettest March at the airport, where records date to 1943, it was enough moisture to set a record for the February-March period.

The two-month total was 3.09 inches — more than double the average of 1.44 inches.

It surpassed the previous record set in 1983, when the two-month total was 2.86 inches (1.05 inches in February, 1.81 in March).

This was also just the third year at the airport when precipitation topped 1 inch in both February and March. The others were 1983 and 2014 (February 1.19 inches, March 1.04).

Although the mountain snowpack didn’t deepen significantly in Northeastern Oregon during March, which can be one of the snowier months at higher elevations, neither did the pack shrink much.

At a few snow-measuring sites the water content in the snow — a more meaningful statistic, in determining water supplies, than is snow depth — is near all-time record highs for early April.

Eilertson Meadow, along Rock Creek in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines, is an example.

As of this morning the water content at that site, elevation 5,510 feet, was 16.2 inches.

In only one year since the station was installed there in 1980 has the water content been higher on April 3. That was in 1983, when the water content on that date was 20.5 inches.

The average for the date is 6.5 inches.

Baker City water supply looks good

About five miles southeast of Eilertson Meadow, in a basin at the base of 8,932-foot Elkhorn Peak, is Goodrich Lake.

Decades ago Baker City built a dam at the natural lake’s outlet to increase its holding capacity. The lake, which holds about 210 million gallons of water, is one of the city’s two main supplemental sources of drinking water, along with a well.

See more in the April 3, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.