TIMBERLINE LODGE, Ore. – Making her way on cross-country skis to take a snowpack reading near this historic lodge on Mount Hood, hydrologist Julie Koeberle stopped to admire the sight of big firs bent silent with weight.
“It’s so awesome to see the snow hanging on the trees,” she said. “We sure didn’t see that last year.”
Irrigators, wildlife managers, hydro-power operators and others throughout the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are expressing similar relief. A series of pounding December storms brought unrelenting torrents of rain to the coasts and valleys and, in the mountains, snow at last.
While skiers and snowboarders celebrate abundant snow for its
recreational aspects, it is the snowpack’s stored water that will help irrigate crops, cool salmon and spin turbines in the summer months to come.
“Snowpack is the lifeblood of the West,” said Koeberle, who works with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland. “This is such a relief from last year.”
As of Dec. 29, nearly 7 feet of snow had accumulated at Timberline Lodge, elevation 5,960 feet, and it contained 21.5 inches of water, Koeberle said. The water content now is greater than the 20 inches measured at the peak annual snowfall in April 2015. The past season’s Northwest snowpack was largely gone by May.
With three to four months of additional snowfall possible this season, the region may ease the grip of drought that’s stunted crops, killed fish and left forests and rangeland dry and vulnerable to fierce fires.
“This is a great way to start,” Koeberle said. “To be already better than last year is a little bit comforting.”
The NRCS maintains 730 SNOTEL monitoring sites in 11 states, 82 of them in Oregon, that electronically report snowfall and water content information. The Oregon sites as of the end of December were reporting water levels that were 150 percent of normal for that date.
Last year, nearly half of Oregon’s long-term monitoring sites measured the lowest snowpack level on record.
Koeberle led a news media tour Dec. 29 of the SNOTEL site near Timberline, and demonstrated how hydrologists take samples of the snow and weigh it to measure water content. The same information is available electronically, but the annual media event gives hydrologists an opportunity to discuss the water supply outlook.
Because of the December snow, the water supply in most of the state is likely to improve this coming year. But Koeberle said it’s too early to declare the drought over.
Some complications remain. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) said the rest of the season will be warmer than normal in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.
Koeberle said the region may have “dodged the El Niño bullet” for now.
“Normally, during most El Niños, it would be warm and dry and we just would not have gotten any precipitation at all,” she said by email. “I am concerned that January could bring us warm and dry conditions based on the CPC forecast.”