Science & Environment

Snowstorm won’t do much to lift Oregon out of drought, but it’s a start

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Dec. 10, 2021 1 p.m.

The punishing drought that took years to form across the state will likely require an equally long recovery.

Mount Hood in 2009

Mount Hood in 2009. Mountain snow has been scant across Oregon so far this year.

Vince Patton / OPB

A snowstorm forecast for this weekend will likely bring heavy snow to mountain ranges across Oregon.


The National Weather Service projects anywhere from 1 to 2 feet of snow in the Cascades and between 8 and 12 inches in parts of the Blue Mountains and Wallowas of Eastern Oregon starting Saturday and into Sunday.

The storm will be a welcome reprieve for mountain ranges that have seen little to no measurable snowpack through the fall, but it will hardly put a dent in the moisture deficits that Oregon has built during a multi-year drought.

More than 90% of Oregon is still in severe drought or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. About one-fifth of the state directly east of the Cascades was in exceptional drought as of Thursday.

“We’ll need multiple years of above-normal conditions in terms of precipitation and cooler snowpack to really completely recover from the drought,” said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisory hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of Oregon. “So anything we get is obviously a start.”

The NRCS measures precipitation totals and snowpack against the median from the past 30 years. Most Oregon basins have seen precipitation levels below that median to start the water year, which began Oct. 1. Mountain snowpack is at most one-third of the median across the entire state.


It’s a problem that extends beyond Oregon. Every basin in the American West monitored by the NRCS showed less-than-normal mountain snowpack as of Thursday.

Oviatt said the lack of snow so far this year is cause for concern, but he added that Oregon has endured similar conditions in the past and recovered later in the winter. To do so, the state needs to have sustained cooler temperatures through the winter along with lots of moisture.

“That would be the optimum occurrence this year,” he said.

The late arrival of winter weather has also put the start of ski season on hold. Not a single lift in Oregon was open as of Thursday, according to ski report tracker OnTheSnow, but that could change with a hefty dump.

“We’re looking at a very promising forecast that we believe will get us open for the season,” said Dave Tragethon with Mt. Hood Meadows. “We just don’t know exactly what day or how much of the mountain will open. Chances are we’ll start with some sort of a limited opening.”

Chelsea Judy with Anthony Lakes near Baker City said in an email that there’s no “magic number of inches needed to open.”

“[W]e’ve been slim on snow in the past and then all of [the] sudden, we get a couple of good storms and we’re skiing,” Judy wrote.

Long-term forecasts from the National Weather Service predict snowy weather in the mountains could continue into the middle of next week.

Oregon is projected to experience the effects of a La Niña weather pattern this year, which is typically associated with wetter-than-normal conditions in the Pacific Northwest.