Snowpack

Retreating clouds revealed the summit of Elkhorn Peak, second-highest point in the Elkhorn Mountains at 8,932 feet, on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 3.

The balmy rainstorms that melted most of the snow in Baker City the past few days had a much different effect in the mountains.

Snow rather than rain fell at elevations above about 5,000 feet.

The storms brought the snowpack to near average in many places, and pushed it above average in some.

Snow in the region’s mountains is the largest reservoir of water for irrigation and recreation. This winter’s snowpack is particularly important because a drought in 2020 depleted reservoirs.

As of Monday, Jan. 4, the water content in the snowpack at more than a dozen measuring sites in the Grande Ronde, Powder, Burnt and Imnaha river basins was 93% of average.

(Water content, rather than snow depth, is a more accurate predictor of water supply, since 18 inches of heavy, wet snow can hold much more water than 24 inches of dry, powdery snow.)

Most measuring sites have a higher water content now than they did a year ago, although it’s relatively early in the snowpack season.

Typically, the snowpack reaches its yearly maximum in March or, at the highest elevations, in April.

Last winter the snowpack, after a sluggish start, was bolstered by one series of storms in mid-January and another in late March.

The above-average snowpack helped to blunt the drought’s effects.

This winter the snowpack has accumulated faster.

An example is Gold Center, an automated snow-measuring site between Sumpter and Granite. The water content in the snowpack there was 6.3 inches at noon on Monday, Jan. 4, an increase from 5.1 inches at the start of the day on Jan. 2. The noon Monday figure was 26% above average, and 54% above the figure from one year ago.

Last weekend’s storms had even larger effects at Schneider Meadow, in the southern Wallowas north of Halfway.

The water content there rose from 10.8 inches at the start of the day Jan. 2, to 14.1 inches at noon on Monday, Jan. 4. That’s almost 4% above average for the date, and 68% above the water content on Jan. 4, 2020.

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