Late-winter storms boost area snowpack levels

The snow level is down low which is good news for area agriculture producers in terms of water supplies for the upcoming planting and harvest season. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – Mother Nature arrived late this winter and made up for lost time as a series of storms boosted snowpack and water levels across the region.

In what Natural Resources Conservation Service officials are calling a “remarkable and unexpected” recovery, a spate of winter squalls boosted snowpack to above normal levels locally and across the state.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s latest report, the February storm cycles “more than doubled the amount of snow on the ground in most locations, breaking many records along the way.”

A good example is found in the snowpack levels for the Owyhee and Malheur Basins, which furnish water to area farmers and ranchers. A precipitation level of 229 percent above average in February turned the tables on what had started to look like a low water year. As of March 1, both basins showed snowpack levels at 138 percent of normal, up from 95 percent of normal a month ago. Also, a snowpack monitor in the Bully Creek area registered the highest March 1 snowpack there in more than 60 years.

The sudden high snowpack means the streamflow forecast from April to September – a key indicator for area irrigators – is bright. Area water supplies are “likely to be above normal to well above normal this summer,” the NRCS report said.

That is good news for area agriculturists even as some area reservoirs remain low.

Beulah reservoir was 33 percent full as of Monday, while Warm Springs reservoir was 16 percent full. However, Bully Creek reservoir was 51 percent full Monday and Owyhee reservoir was 48 percent full.

If the spring run-off is as good as expected those water reservoirs could see rapid gains.

Since January, the snowpack figures for the peaks of the Malheur and Owyhee basins has been encouraging. Natural Resources Conservation Service statistics in January showed the snowpack levels in the Malheur and Owyhee Basins at 116 percent of normal.

The mid-February snowpack outlook was even better across the two basins, said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisory hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 “We’ve had significant mountain snows and it is what we hoped for,” said Oviatt. He noted the change in weather patterns in February.

“We got that big shift where we are getting that southwest flow coming up through California and cooler temperatures coming in from the north,” said Oviatt. Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District in Nyssa, said the spate of recent storms arrived in the nick of time.

“We got into those warmer days in the first part of February and things started to stall out and I was getting nervous. But these storms have made all the difference,” said Chamberlin.

He said they have added to soil moisture as well as the snowpack.

“We’ve made up the deficit,” said Chamberlin. “So, all and all I think it is shaping up pretty good for us.”

Yet the low levels in other area reservoirs poses a challenge, said Oviatt.

“We went in so low because we had such a high demand last summer and fall and low streamflows. So, we still need to build that snowpack to ensure that runoff,” said Oviatt.

Oviatt said local farmers shouldn’t expect those reservoirs to fill to the brim this year “because we went in with such a deficit.”

“We need the trend to continue. We need cool, wet weather to continue through the spring,” said Oviatt. The flipside of the sudden onslaught of moisture is it could keep farmers out of their fields, said Stuart Reitz, Malheur County extension agent.

“A couple of weeks ago everyone was figuring they’d be planting early. But if we keep getting rains like this, the fields will be wet. With all this moisture, it will push things back,” said Reitz. Nyssa farmer Dan Corn said he wasn’t too worried about a planting delay – not yet.

“If it continues for another few weeks it will probably push us back but right now we are happy to have it,” said Corn.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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