February was a tale of two seasons for Oregon’s snow-starved mountains and river basins.
The first half of the month saw warm and dry weather carry over from December and January, with total snowpack languishing around 40 percent of normal levels statewide. But winter has come roaring back over the last few weeks, doubling the amount of snow on the ground across some areas, especially in the northern Oregon Cascades.
Julie Koeberle, snow survey hydrologist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland, said the amount of snow at Mount Hood rose from 53 inches on Feb. 11 to 118 inches, showing an impressive turnaround.
“It’s been really interesting,” Koeberle said. “What we waited all season to get, we pretty much got in the last two weeks.”
While conditions are much improved, Koeberle cautions snowfall is still lagging behind on average.
“We still need quite a bit more if we’re going to catch up to normal,” she said.
Portions of southern Oregon are in particularly dire straits, with the Klamath and Owyhee basins still registering below 50 percent of normal snowpack. Klamath County commissioners have already declared a drought emergency, and farmers are bracing for a painful year.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows virtually all of central and Eastern Oregon in some type of drought designation, from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought.” Koeberle said she would not be surprised to see more drought declarations as summer nears.
“In a perfect world, we will continue to get snow, but we can’t count on that,” she said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, the next three months should bring colder weather to northern Oregon and an equal chance of normal precipitation throughout the state. The lower temperatures should at least bode well for sustaining the current snowpack, Koeberle said, which in turn will help sustain streams longer into the season.
The NRCS will soon release its monthly streamflow forecast for March, which Koeberle said will reflect the latest gains in snowpack.
“Luckily, we’ve had some improvement in snow. Hopefully that continues,” she said. “We still do have time for some improvement, but we just don’t know how much we’re going to get.”
A silver lining for farmers and ranchers continues to be reservoir levels, which continue to hover around normal, Koeberle said. But for those without access to reservoir rights, she said it would be wise to plan for lower water supplies this summer.