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Lack of early snowpack raised concerns for hydrologists of dry summer around Oregon

POST PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - The 2017 SWE reading for the Mount Hood SNOTEL site, located on the grounds at Timberline Lodge, was around 41.4 inches. Skiers and snowboarders rejoiced when late February brought several inches of fresh powder for carving. Hydrologists, however, still have some reason for concern.

April is peak season on the mountain, meaning what hydrologists are looking for, rather than great ski conditions, is ample water content stored in the snowpack. Without that, Oregon could be looking at a rather dry summer.

A normal snow-water equivalent (SWE) is 59 inches. Reports in March showed the SWE at 36.1 inches in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes Basins. As of March 1, the reading was at about 80 percent of normal.

"Last year we started right out the gate in December with good snowpack," Julie Koeberle, a snow hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Oregon Snow Survey, told The Post. "(And we had) above-normal snowpack still in April."

The 2017 SWE reading for the Mount Hood SNOTEL site, located on the grounds at Timberline Lodge above Government Camp, was around 41.4 inches.

Fortunately, some of the late snowfall on Mount Hood has helped secure a greater store of water for summer, but other areas in the state such as the Klamath basin area are not so lucky. Koeberle noted that the NRCS may still have to advise certain regions to manage water carefully in the warmer months.

"If we could keep cool temperatures like we've been seeing, (that would be good)," she explained. "We don't want a rapid warm up. If it stays cool and then we get late-spring precipitation, (that would be ideal). But there's no guarantee. Snowpack is like our money in the bank. You can't plan on it, but it would be nice to see."

Between the March 1 SNOTEL report and the April 1 report, there has been a 15 percent increase of snow in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes area, bringing the snowpack levels up to 42.8 inches or 90 percent of normal.

"We've definitely improved across the state," Koeberle said. "We've definitely seen an increase, but at (the Mount Hood site) it's still below normal. … Our area is the best of the state so far. Our streamflow forecasts … are pretty promising, especially considering how far behind the rest of the state is doing. ... Our region has been pretty resilient."

Koeberle noted that much of the area's 90 percent of normal reading can be attributed to the lower basin areas retaining more snow, such as in areas like the Bull Run Watershed, not necessarily on the mountain.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: NATIONAL RESOURCE CONSERVATION SERVICE  - The snowpack in the Hood, Sandy and Lower Deschutes Basins area is on a steady incline, but a dry summer could still greatly impact the area's water supply.Koeberle compared this year in terms of snowpack to 2014.

"In 2014, we had kind of a similar slow start to the season," she said. "Not all of the state recovered."

Though the Mount Hood area is faring better now, with a few snowfalls still likely to come, hydrologists like Koeberle still worry about the overall water picture of Oregon.

Even in the Mount Hood area an incredibly hot summer could still mean a negative impact on water levels and the region would be looking at emergency conservation later in the year.

"It's definitely a concern," Koeberle noted. "It's interesting because over the past few years we've had a lot of variability (in snowpack). It makes it a challenge because no two years are completely alike. We were optimistic about this year originally because it's a la niña year. ... Even though our streamflow forecast is near normal, that is just a forecast. If we have a really dry summer, that could really draw on our resources."

Because of the weather's unpredictability, agencies are constantly looking for ways to adapt.

"We always advocate just trying to think about your water usage," Koeberle said. "You too can always do something to help. A little goes a long way as we say."

The NRCS crew has not done an on-site snow survey since April 2017. Koeberle said that is because of staffing complications and that "our SNOTEL sites are working just right to get us information." She does hope to be back out on Mount Hood for a reading during peak season a year from now.

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