The recent spate of snowstorms may have canceled school and snarled traffic across Eastern Oregon, but it was good for the region’s snowpack.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service released its February Water Supply Outlook Report on Friday, which revealed that some of the snowpack for the area’s biggest contributors to surface water were in good shape.
By the end of January, the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Willow basins were at 102 percent of normal levels, the USDA reported.
But that didn’t account for a strong period of precipitation over the past few days.
Julie Koeberle, a snow survey hydrologist for the USDA, said the new snow means the total snow pack for those three basins is now 114 percent of normal levels.
“This storm cycle is promising,” she said.
Already a leader in the February report, the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Willow basins is now tied with the Lake County and Goose Lake water basins for the top snowpack in the state.
But the USDA entitled its press release announcing the February report “Oregon snowpack report leaves much to be desired” for a reason.
The rest of the state hasn’t fared as well in building snowpack for its water sources, with many basins struggling to reach three quarters of normal levels.
Although the local basin’s snowpack is riding high at the moment, Koeberle said the region will need more storms like the one in February to maintain its current level.
The National Weather Service’s long-term forecast calls for a warmer and drier February, March and April in the Northwest, a trend that Koeberle said would be the worst case scenario.
Warmer and drier weather would deplete the snowpack, Koeberle said, although the day-to-day weather can be difficult to predict this far out.
The region doesn’t have to look far back to see what a dry winter can do.
Last February snowpack report for the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Willow basins was only 67 percent of normal levels.
Going back even further shows a fluctuating pattern. February 2017’s snowpack report showed the three basins contained 120 percent of normal levels by the end of January.
And even with all the recent precipitation, the USDA still considers most of Umatilla County “abnormally dry,” a step above moderate drought.
But the important factor for irrigators and other users of surface water is how much water will be available once the snowpack melts in the warm weather months.
If Eastern Oregon’s snowpack levels ends up where it was at the end of January by the time the precipitation season ends, the USDA anticipates stream flows will be 60 percent to 100 percent of normal levels around the region.