Recent snowstorms erase drought concerns as water expected to be adequate for season

 - The recent snowstorms that hit the Central Oregon area pushed the snowpack well beyond the average amounts for early March, meaning Prineville Reservoir will likely fill and Ochoco Reservoir will have a good amount of water to supply irrigators this farming season.

What a difference a couple months makes.

"I was thinking drought and conservation, and all of the strictest ways that we could look at things," says Ochoco Irrigation District Manager Bruce Scanlon as he looks back on early January. "Now, we are actually even looking at potentially having to release for flood control at some point."

A visit to the usual snowpack measuring sites in early February, after some recent, but modest snowfall, helped paint a rosier picture where Scanlon expected about the same amount of water as 2018, or slightly more. That year was tough, and conservation was necessary, but the district was able to provide enough water to get farmers through the season.

Fast-forward another month, and Scanlon is no longer comparing this snowpack to last year. Now, he is looking at 2017 numbers, which followed a very snowy winter in Crook County and elsewhere.

At the beginning of February, the average snow depth at Marks Creek Snow Course, about 25 miles east of Prineville, was 4.9 inches. Now, it is 27 inches. The Ochoco Meadows Snow Course, up near Walton Lake, rose from 28 inches in early February to 53 inches in March. Derr Meadows, near Mitchell, had a 31-inch snow depth in February and, according to SNOTEL online data, the site has 61 inches of snow. District staff had planned to go up and measure the snow on Friday.

Even when numbers are compared against 2017, this current snowpack comes out on top. Marks Creek has 10 more inches now than it did at this time two years ago. Ochoco Meadows has 12 more inches of snow than in 2017, and current Derr Meadows totals eclipse 2017 numbers by 6 inches.

"We are out of the woods, if you want to use that term. We are going to be OK going through the irrigation season," Scanlon said. "The expectation is that Prineville Reservoir will fill, and we still have questions about Ochoco, but we think that we will be in good shape."

Where drought conditions were once the greatest concern going into the farming season, thoughts now turn to flood control and what the rate of snow melt-off will mean for irrigators and farmers. Scanlon said that ideal conditions depend on who you ask.

"If you are in the Upper Country (near Paulina) then it is beneficial if things come off slower. The water is available for longer," he said. "Down here, where people rely upon us, it is not going to be as big of a deal."

But if the snow takes a prolonged time to melt, it could adversely affect local agriculture.

"That will have an agricultural impact with having the ground be wet when you are trying to farm and not being able to plant things in a timely fashion."

This in turn could lessen demand during the early spring and prompt OID to delay the start of its irrigation season. At this point, the district is targeting mid-April, but Scanlon said plans could change, depending on future weather.

"We continue to play that by ear," he said.

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