Oregon started off 2016 with more snow than at any point during last year’s historically dry winter, though more is needed to fill streams and reservoirs heading into next summer.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service issued its first water supply outlook report of the new year, and the numbers are promising: on Jan. 1, snowpack was 138 percent of normal across the state compared to just 53 percent a year ago.

Locally, the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basins measured 122 percent of their normal snowpack. Snow depth in the northern Blue Mountains ranged from 13 inches at Emigrant Springs to 65 inches at Milk Shakes, a snow survey site near the Oregon-Washington border.

If the region continues to receive normal rain and snow, the Umatilla River, Willow Creek and South Fork Walla Walla River could all meet or exceed average flows through September, according to the NRCS. That would be great news for the area’s farms, fish and firefighters.

However, the long-range forecast is iffy at best. A strong El Niño in the Pacific Ocean will likely linger into spring, and the National Weather Service is calling for warmer, drier weather in northeast Oregon over the next three months.

Melissa Webb, snow hydrologist with the NRCS in Portland, said that could derail snowpack in a hurry. In fact, Webb said snowpack has already dipped from 149 percent to 105 percent in the Umatilla Basin since Christmas Eve, showing just how quickly things can change.

“A couple inches, plus or minus, is a pretty big deal,” she said. “We really need to have pretty consistent storms.”

December undoubtedly delivered, with Jan. 1 marking the highest snowpack to start a year since 2011. But the effects of recent drought years are cumulative, Webb said. Simply put, it’s going to take more than a month of cold and snow to complete the turnaround.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that 2015 was Oregon’s warmest year on record, and the NRCS already reported last winter yielded the lowest snowpack on record. Those factors combined mean Eastern Oregon is still in moderate to severe drought.

Agriculture, fisheries and recreation were all hit hard by the 2015 drought. Without enough snow melt to recharge streams, some irrigation districts were forced to shut off water early. Low flows and high water temperatures killed off certain populations of fish, prompting the state to impose an unprecedented afternoon ban on fishing for trout, salmon, steelhead and sturgeon.

Wildfire season also lasted roughly three weeks longer in northeast Oregon, without snow cover to keep fuels from drying out early.

“We’re very excited to have a good start to the year after the drought last year,” Webb said. “We want to make sure we keep building our snowpack to get close to normal water supplies.

Webb said she hopes the three-month forecast proves wrong. History has proven there are many different possibilities when starting out with a great season like this, she said.

“We are definitely in wait-and-see,” Webb said. “We’ve had our share of low snowpack winters in recent years. I’d like to see us buck that trend.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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