This is the time of year when mountain snowpacks are usually at their deepest. But as of last week, three quarters of Oregon’s long-term snow monitoring sites had the lowest snowpack levels on record. On Mt. Hood, the final snow survey of the season will be conducted Thursday.
Julie Koeberle is a Snow Hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She sat down with OPB’s Kate Davidson to talk about the year’s snowpack and what lies ahead.
Their exchange has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Kate Davidson: More than half of the snow measuring sites you monitor recorded bare ground last week. Without being dramatic, is there an Oregon snowpack this year or is there just some snow?
Julie Koeberle: That’s a great question. It depends on your location. Above 5000 feet in elevation, we’ve had a snowpack, albeit low, we’ve had one. Especially in the Cascades we’ve seen snow come and go. Snow was on the ground for just a few weeks at a lot of the sites below 5000 feet. February brought in some rain, it brought some snow, but those lower elevation (snowpacks) were washed away - most of them in February.
KD: Can you put this in some historic context? What we’re seeing this year versus years past?
JK: This is a very unusual year. We haven’t really seen one like this because this is one of our lowest snowpacks on record throughout the state. We have had other years where they were the previous low record snowpack years, like 2005, for example, 1981 and 1992 was another one. So it seems like once every decade we’ve been seeing a really low snow year. This one just happens to be one of the lowest.
KD: Tell me about Mt. Hood specifically. What are you finding about conditions there?
JK: Right now, today, the snowpack is 26 percent of normal. If you take all the sites in the basin, including Mt. Hood where we’ll be tomorrow, they are 11 percent of normal. There’s about 3.5 feet of snow depth at Mt. Hood and only about 16 inches of water content.
Normally there should be about 60 inches of water content. That really shows how much water deficit we have.
KD: Water content is…?
JK: That’s the amount of water that’s stored in the snow depth column. So if you were to melt the snow depth, we have about 3.5 feet there, there’d be about 16 inches of water.
KD: Why has the snowpack been so low this year?
JK: It’s been very interesting. Since October 1, when we start our water year, we’ve seen near average amounts of precipitation. So what happened to the snow? Well, it’s been really warm. So a lot of that has fallen as rain. In fact, most of that precipitation fell from October 1 through December. Essentially our season’s worth of precipitation fell in the fall. But, if it had stayed cold, throughout the rest of the winter, we’d at least be hanging on to a near-normal snowpack throughout the state.
We’re in an el Niño year, which usually means warm and dry conditions for the Pacific Northwest. But we’ve seen near-average precipitation, which is unusual. We’re not alone, there’re many parts of the West that are seeing record low snowpacks.
KD: Your agency, The Natural Resources Conservation Service, says water users that rely on stream flow for irrigation from snowmelt are going to face shortages later this year and this summer. Do you have a sense how severe this will be?
HK: Folks who don’t have access to reservoir water are likely going to see shortages. Depending on where you are depends on the severity. Northeastern Oregon has had slightly better snowpack, still below normal, but they were able to hold on to it a little bit longer at some of their lower elevations than the rest of the state but they’re still looking at below normal stream flows even there.