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Deep snowpack bodes well for drought recovery


COURTESY OF NRCS/TOM PERKINS - National Resources Conservation Service employees measure snow water content at a Mt. Hood site as part of winter snowpack test. A new survey found deep snowpack around the state, which could help as Oregon recovers from drought.Oregon’s mountain snowpack is above normal and has already surpassed last year’s snowpack, which could be a good sign as the state recovers from drought.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reported Friday, Jan. 8, that the fall and winter’s rain and snow should make state officials and others “cautiously optimistic that a successful start to 2016 will enable drought recovery.”

As of Jan. 1, the statewide snowpack was 138 percent of normal, compared to last year at this time when it was 53 percent of normal. In the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes Basin, the Jan. 1 snowpack was 117 percent of normal, the lowest in the state. That's still higher than last year, when the basin snowpack was 38 percent of normal.

In the Willamette Basin, which covers most of the Willamette Valley and the Portland area, the Jan. 1 snowpack was 126 percent of normal, significantly higher than last year's snowpack, which was 38 percent of normal.

“This is the scenario we had hoped for following last year’s extreme drought conditions,” said Melissa Webb, conservation service snow survey hydrologist. “The fall and early winter precipitation have started to fill reservoirs across the state that were heavily depleted going into the fall. Also, the snowpack that we have right now in the mountains is more than we had at any time last year, which is very encouraging.”

The National Resources Conversation Service Snow Survey measures snow and provides streamflow forecasts and snowpack data for communities, water managers and recreationalists across the West. In Oregon, snow measurements are collected from 81 sites, 42 manually measured snow courses and 26 aerial markers.

Water and snowpack information for all sites nationwide is available on the Snow Survey website, www.or.nrcs.usda.gov/snow.

According to the conservation service, high demand on reservoir storage last summer nearly drained reservoirs, leaving little to carry-over into this season. Most reservoirs in Oregon are storing below-normal amounts for this time of year, except in the Willamette basin, where fall rain boosted many of those reservoirs back to normal levels, according to the agency.

The abundant mountain snowpack and streamflow forecasts predict near normal to well above normal flows for the summer, according to the agency. However, hydrologists cautioned that it’s still early in the season and summer projections are likely to change.

“We hope that winter will bring more snow to continue boosting the snowpack so that water users can experience some relief from last year’s drought conditions,” Webb said.