Snowpack

A pair of storms last week dumped heavy snow even at lower elevations. This photo was taken on Nov. 15 near Phillips Reservoir, elevation about 4,300 feet, where the snow was about a foot deep.

The snow, nearly 2 feet deep, hid the reality only until Wes Morgan lowered the snowplow blade.

The metal scraped not only the newfallen snow near Morgan’s Sumpter Valley home, but it also peeled off chunks of the desiccated ground beneath.

And the drought’s effects were again revealed.

“That snow basically fell on dry ground,” Morgan said on Tuesday, Nov. 17. “It darn near fell on dust.”

Which is not to say that Morgan is complaining about the pair of storms last week that brought unusually copious quantities of snow for the first half of November.

He has a particular interest in snow.

Morgan manages the Burnt River Irrigation District in southern Baker County.

The meltwater that trickles from mountain snowdrifts each spring and summer fills Unity Reservoir — the lone impoundment in Morgan’s district — and keeps irrigation ditches flowing and sprinklers spraying on alfalfa fields.

“We’re off to a good start,” he said. “It’s nice to get some moisture in the ground. We could use a good winter.”

The summer and fall have been anything but good.

Most of Baker County is in either severe or moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

And although droughts tend to be associated with summer heat, the key factor in this region, where most of the arable lands lie in valleys where annual rainfall is less than 15 inches, is the snow that accumulates each winter in the mountains.

That snow is by far the largest reservoir, and winter storms have an outsized effect on the water supply.

This year’s drought has depleted reservoirs, including Phillips, along the Powder River not far from Morgan’s house.

Phillips, which is part of the Baker Valley Irrigation District, is holding about 7% of its capacity.

Based on previous years when it was similarly drained, the reservoir, which supplies irrigation water to more than 30,000 acres in the Baker Valley, probably won’t refill in 2021 even if the snowpack this coming winter is bountiful.

But a skimpy snowpack would exacerbate an already daunting situation.

Which is why Morgan, although acknowledging that the snowpack season is in its infancy, was pleased by how rapidly the snow piled up.

And surprised.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had this much snow this early,” Morgan said.

Statistics from the array of automated snow-measuring stations around the Blue Mountains lend numerical support to his assessment.

Most of those sites — they’re called “Sno-tels,” and they consist of a liquid-filled pillow with a sensor that weighs the snow and calculates its water content — are reporting much more snow than average for the middle of November.

And in a couple of cases the current snowpack is setting a record for this time of year.

At Eilertson Meadow in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Haines, for example, the water content on Tuesday, Nov. 17, was 2.7 inches, the highest ever measured on that date since the Snotel was installed in 1980.

The previous record at Eilertson Meadow, which is along Rock Creek, was 2.0 inches in 1985.

Another record-setter is Gold Center, near the Sumpter-Granite Highway between those two towns, about 40 mile west of Baker City.

The water content at Gold Center Tuesday was 3.4 inches, nipping the previous record for the date of 3.3 inches, set in 2005.

The water content of 2.7 inches at Bourne, about 6 miles north of Sumpter, fell just short of the record of 2.9 inches, set in 2005.

At Tipton Summit, on Highway 7 between Baker City and Austin Junction, the water content of 2.9 is also the second-highest for the date. The record is 3.4 inches, set in 1982.

A warming trend this week melted much of the snow at lower elevations, but more snow is forecast over the next several days in the mountains, especially above about 5,000 feet elevation.

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