By Pat Caldwell
The Enterprise
VALE – The best way to visualize snowpack and water availability for the county is to think of a bank account.
Each winter, storms roll over the local area and deposit snow in the mountains. As more storms arrive the snowpack bank account grows. But this year Mother Nature hasn’t dropped as much capital into her bank account as usual, which could have far-reaching implications for the county’s two biggest economic engines – cattle and farming.
While Mother Nature’s stinginess may not hurt the 2018 farming season, low snowpack levels this year could mean trouble in 2019.
“We will be fine this year with the stored water,” said Ron Jacobs, the state water master in Vale.
That’s because, said Jacobs, Mother Nature was generous in 2017, as epic storms dropped record levels of snow onto the two main water basins – the Owyhee and Malheur – that serve Malheur County.
This winter started out with a bang in terms of storms but has since fizzled. Squalls in November and October delivered an ample supply of mountain snow but a warming trend in December generated rain, melting the snowpack.
The difference in snowpack levels between January 2017 and this month are significant. On Jan. 1, 2017, Owyhee and Malheur basin snowpack was 130 percent of normal. On Jan. 1 this year the snowpack was 42 percent of normal.
The Harney basin faces a similar scenario. There, the basin snowpack Jan. 1 was 47 percent of normal. Last year at the same time the snowpack was 108 percent of normal.
December precipitation on the Owyhee and Malheur basins was 43 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“The snowpack conditions right now are far behind normal for this time of year in the Malheur and Owyhee basins. Most measurement sites in this area have only 30 percent to 50 percent of normal snowpack levels,” said Melissa Webb, snow hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
In other words, the snowpack bank account – upon which irrigation and stream flows hinge – is less than it should be.
“We need a lot colder snowy storms to catch up to typical peak levels this winter. The streamflow forecasts for summer are currently predicting well below normal flows because of the low snowpack,” said Webb.
What will save this irrigation season is the amount of water still in storage, said Webb.
“The one redeeming element right now in this region is the reservoir storage, which is above normal for this time of year. Last year was a wetter year and that really helped reservoir levels,” said Webb.
Last week Beulah Reservoir was 39 percent full while Warm Springs reservoir was 59 percent full. Bully Creek Reservoir near Vale was 40 percent full and Owyhee Reservoir was 67 percent full. Unity Reservoir was 41 percent full.
Reservoir levels may drop as spring nears, said Scott Oviatt, a hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“In all years, reservoir operators, they will take the water level down in order to accommodate the snowmelt runoff. The lower levels are not as alarming as the fact we don’t have snow,” said Oviatt.
Some of the area reservoirs, said Oviatt, are more dependent upon snowpack then others.
“The Owyhee Reservoir had 100 percent capacity after last winter, so that is essentially a two-year supply. They will have no problem delivering adequate water to water users regardless of what happens this year,” said Oviatt.
Oviatt and Webb said there is still time for Mother Nature to square its snowpack and streamflow bank account, but the clock is ticking.
“It is still early but with each passing day the likelihood of getting these larger impact storms that carry significant amounts of snow become less and less,” said Oviatt.
Paul Skeen, the president of the Malheur County Onion Growers Association, said he isn’t too worried about water availability for local producers.
“We are still early in the water season. A couple of good snows could take care of it,” said Skeen.
Stuart Reitz, cropping systems agent for that Malheur County Extension Office, agreed.
“I think people understand we typically get a large amount of precipitation later in the winter and early in the spring. So, there is still an opportunity there,” said Reitz.
Randy Kinney, manager of the Warm Springs Irrigation District, said he believes the water year will be a good one but cautioned it always difficult to predict.
“Every year is different, and it is always interesting to see how it plays out. We don’t have the snowpack that will generate a lot of runoff, at this time, but it is very early to start getting out the crystal ball,” said Kinney.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.