Oregon sees dismal start to winter, but plenty of time to turn it around

January 14, 2012

Nervous optimism seems to be the general sentiment around the valley as farmers, irrigation and watershed managers, resort operators and winter recreationalists keep a close eye on Mount Hood's 2011-12 snowpack - or lack of it thus far.

Due to the driest December in the region since 1921 (2.45 inches precipitation) and an uneventful start to 2012, snowpacks are well below average across the state. A National Resource Conservation Service test site on Mount Hood, at 5,370 feet, measured 17.5 inches snow-water equivalent as of Thursday afternoon, which is 52 percent of average.

Despite the dismal numbers halfway through January, those keeping the closest eye on snowpacks aren't panicking yet. Statistically, snow levels at the Mount Hood test site don't peak until early May (see sidebar for monthly averages), so there's still plenty of time to make up for the slow start. Additionally, meteorologists are standing by predictions that the Northwest will see effects from a La Niña weather pattern, which generally brings cooler, wetter weather and plenty of mountain snow.

"It is still relatively early in the season, and a lot can change between now and when peak snowpack accumulation typically occurs," said Jon Lea, NRCS snow survey supervisor. Sites across the state are monitored daily and added to a computer database through NRCS. Statewide statistics can be viewed at www.or.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/.

For people interested less in the overall peak snow-water equivalent for the season than when the next powder day is going to be on the ski slopes, salvation is at hand. A series of heavy winter storms are headed this way from the Gulf of Alaska, and the National Weather Service has issued a special weather statement across most of the state for heavy mountain snow and potential low-elevation snow starting Saturday and lasting late into next week.

"We're excited about the snow-filled forecast, as it appears La Niña is finally going to deliver," said Dave Tragethon, Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area communications and marketing director. "Our dedicated grooming crew has done an exceptional job of making the most of our base. We are fortunate compared to other ski areas in Oregon and other states, as our conditions are among the best."

Shifting to summer, the Hood River Valley is highly dependent on snowpack for agriculture, and watershed managers are waiting eagerly for winter to deliver a sense of security for the valley's many farmers.

Of the three irrigation districts in the Hood River Watershed, East Fork ID is the most dependent on snowpack. Middle Fork ID has Laurance Lake as a reservoir, and Farmers ID draws from Kingsley Reservoir and diverts from the lower Hood River. But East Fork's water supply is diverted from higher up the watershed, near Toll Bridge Park.

If snow packs run out in the summer, the East Fork's flow is mainly glacier melt, which means low water levels and high silt content that can cause a lot of problems for irrigation equipment.

"If things don't improve in another month or so, I expect we'll start having drought meetings with the irrigation districts," said Anne Saxby, Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District manager. "At this point I think people are still crossing their fingers for a year similar to last year, which had a slow start but finished with a lot of late-season snow."

In addition to snowpack, Saxby said spring and summer weather patterns also play an important role in how much water the valley has for irrigation. If the winter turns out to be a flop and snowpacks finish below average, but the spring is relatively wet and the summer cool, water supplies are likely to be fine. On the other hand, if the winter finishes strong and leaves a solid snowpack, but the spring is dry and the summer very hot, water supplies could be an issue despite a good winter.

"Managing water supplies is a tough game," she said. "Fortunately, we have good cooperative communication between various user groups."

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