Storms could relieve Oregon’s flagging snowpacks — for now

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Jan. 16, 2024 2 p.m.

Mountain snow plays a key role in the state’s water supply

Scientists measure snowpack levels every winter to determine upcoming water supplies.

Scientists measure snowpack levels every winter to determine upcoming water supplies.

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix

Oregon just experienced its first major snowstorm of the season. But it’s still too soon to tell if the weather will save large swaths of the state from drought.


The National Weather Service recorded snowfall throughout the region, including in mountain ranges, over the weekend. Following an abnormally warm and dry start to the winter, it could be a significant boon to Oregon’s snowpacks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture painted a dire picture of snowpacks in its Jan. 1 water outlook report. That report showed that most Oregon snowpacks were well below normal levels. From the Willamette Basin in the Portland metro area to the Umatilla-Walla Walla-Willow in northeast Oregon, many snowpacks were well under half of their usual snow water equivalent.

Matt Warbritton, a supervisory hydrologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said a healthy snowpack is vital to both the state’s economy and the general public.


“Below-normal snowpack and drier conditions throughout the rest of the winter will certainly impact various operations as they relate to commercial use agriculture (and) public water supply during the summer,” he said. “We could certainly see water supply shortages.”

The weather outlook can change rapidly from day to day, but Warbritton said that if forecasts in January hold true, the projected snow could bring many basins much closer to their usual snowpack levels. But how that might affect water supply is dependent on whether this latest surge in winter weather is a sign of what the rest of the season will look like or merely an outlier in an otherwise dry season.

Warbritton noted the ongoing El Niño, the Pacific Ocean event that typically creates warmer, drier winters in the Northwest. In December, the weather service predicted there was a 50-60% chance conditions would remain that way through the end of February.

“We’re still early in the season, and we could still revert back to warmer and drier conditions that we saw throughout much of December,” Warbritton said. “But certainly the storms do help alleviate this snow drought that we were seeing.”

Another factor Warbritton is looking at is how the snowfall is distributed throughout the state. While the Cascades and Eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains received measurable snow, the Wallowas and the eastern portion of the Klamath Basin remain drier, by comparison.

That could be a big concern for the latter, where decades of sustained drought have created tensions between farmers, Indigenous tribes and environmental groups over a diminishing supply of water. But Warbritton said the Klamath could be aided by the strong snowfall in the nearby Cascades.

One of the next key months for the water supply is in March, when snowpacks across Oregon typically peak.