Powder River

The Powder River flows through Baker City on Monday, April 26. The river is carrying more water than usual for April to supply irrigation water to farmers and ranchers.

Baker County had its first rainy day in more than a month, and its dampest day in more than eight months.

And it all happened on the same weekend.

After an abnormally dry March and April, which put Baker Valley into extreme drought and prompted county commissioners to declare a drought emergency on April 7, the weather pattern finally shifted.

A Pacific storm that arrived Saturday, April 24 brought the first measurable rainfall to the Baker City Airport since March 22.

Saturday’s total was 0.19 of an inch.

Sunday was even wetter, with 0.25 splashing into the rain gauge at the airport. That’s the most in a single day there since Aug. 18, 2020, when rainfall amounted to 0.29 of an inch.

Both days exceeded the rainfall total for the whole of March. With just 0.14 of an inch, it was the second-driest March at the airport since at least 1943. The driest March was 1969, with a total of 0.13.

Both March and April average about 0.80 of an inch of rain. Ralph Morgan, a cattle rancher who lives southwest of Baker City near Mason Dam, said the weekend rain was welcome.

“We’re definitely in a drought period,” Morgan said on Monday morning, April 26. “It’s extremely dry.”

Morgan said rainfall was not evenly distributed.

At his house, for instance, he measured just 0.13 of an inch.

A rain gauge just below Mason Dam recorded 0.11 of an inch.

Amounts were generally higher in the northern and eastern parts of the county.

A weather station on Morgan Mountain, northwest of Huntington, measured 0.62 of an inch Saturday and Sunday, while Sparta Butte north of Richland had 0.43.

The soggy spell continued into Monday, April 26.

A strong shower in the afternoon brought hail as well as rain. As of 2:30 p.m., an additional 0.12 of an inch of rain had fallen, bringing April’s total at the airport to 0.56.

Morgan said this spring has been noteworthy not only for its lack of rain, but also for its cool nights.

The overnight low has dipped below 20 degrees on six days during April. Three of those days set new record lows.

The chilly nights have slowed the melting of snow, Morgan said.

He noticed a drift of snow near his home while he was changing irrigation pipes Monday morning.

Typically, the last drift disappears in early April from that area, Morgan said.

The relatively abundant mountain snowpack will partially help to offset the effects of the dry spring, said Jeff Colton, who manages the Baker Valley Irrigation District.

With rain absent for the past month, he had to start releasing more water from Phillips Reservoir more than two weeks ago. Only about once a decade is it necessary to increase the outflow from the reservoir to meet irrigation demand, Colton said.

Most years, rainfall keeps newly planted crops nourished, he said.

Colton is optimistic that once the mountain snow begins melting more rapidly, farmers won’t need as much water and he’ll be able to store much of the water in the reservoir, to be doled out this summer.

But Colton said it’s all but certain that the reservoir will have little water this fall, once the irrigation season ends.

As of Monday, Phillips was holding 23% of its capacity of 73,500 acre-feet of water.

(One acre-foot of water would cover one acre of flat ground to a depth of one foot. The measurement equals about 326,000 gallons.)

Other reservoirs, with much smaller volumes, were in better shape. Both Thief Valley (capacity of about 13,300 acre-feet) and Unity (25,000 acre-feet) reservoirs were full on Monday.

Morgan said the cold nights have also retarded the growth of spring grasses in the mountains where cattle graze during the summer.

The sluggish growth has somewhat tempered the effects of the dry spring, he said, since the grasses will most benefit from rainfall once the soil warms and they start growing more rapidly.

Morgan said it’s definitely not too late for rain to improve the situation this spring.

That’s often the situation in Baker County, where May, on average, is the wettest month at the Baker City Airport, with an average of 1.43 inches of rain. June ranks second, with 1.38 inches.

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