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Warm weather not boding well for snowpack

February 13, 2018

The mid-valley basked in nearly 60-degree weather for most of last week with only a touch of precipitation. Baby lambs are getting fat and the grass seed fields are bright green, but the leisurely weather may bear an unpleasant aftereffect come summer in the form of low river water levels and drought.

Oregon’s snowpack level continues to be dangerously low, officials from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service warned last week.

So low, they said, it will take at least 125 to 225 percent of normal snowfall over the next two months to catch up to normal.

But the mid-valley forecast through most of this week calls for daytime highs from 52 to 59 degrees and overnight lows in the low 30s — dropping to 27 on Monday.

“With about half of winter behind us, chances for a full snowpack recovery are low, but there is still time for conditions to improve,” said Julie Koeberle, NRCS Snow Survey hydrologist.

According to Friday’s Oregon SNOTEL report, the Willamette basin of the Cascades has received just 35 percent of the normal snow water equivalent. All of the basins except the Umatilla/Walla Walla (51 percent) and Grande Ronde (62 percent) basins are at less than 50 percent of normal.

Koeberle warned water managers “to carefully evaluate water supplies this summer if snow and spring rains fail to bring relief.”

Oregon has gotten 88 percent of its usual precipitation but just 40 percent of its typical snowfall.

Currently, the lowest streamflow forecasts are in southern Oregon, where weather conditions have been the driest. Koeberle said the most promising streamflow forecasts are in the Umatilla and Walla Walla basins and possibly in streams flowing from Mount Hood.

Hoodoo Ski Area planned to hold its annual winter carnival Saturday, even though the snow base was just 29 inches. Four of five lifts were operating, but the autobahn was closed due to lack of snow.

There hadn’t been any snowfall in the last 72 hours, although 2 inches of snow was expected on Monday.

Other popular ski areas are experiencing the same lack-of-snow woes.

Ski lifts at Mount Hood Ski Bowl have been shut down and a Nordic ski race was canceled at Mount Bachelor.

Willamette Pass ski area has been hit especially hard and was closed on Friday.

A note on its website read, “At this time, Willamette Pass is experiencing record warmth and our snow pack has diminished to a low level. Operations are suspended until winter weather returns and provides the needed snow for safe skiing and snowboarding.”

The lack of snow has also affected local and state road crews.

Linn County Roadmaster Darrin Lane said his crews scattered throughout the county haven’t accrued much overtime and have definitely used much less deicer and sand than in more normal snowfall years.

But that has a two-edge effect, Lane warned.

“While we may save $15,000 to $30,000 in time and materials, we also have a lot of new maintenance staff due to retirements,” Lane said. “The new folks aren’t getting as much hands-on experience behind the wheel of snowplows. We can tell them how to drive a snowplow, but that’s far from the same as doing it. There’s nothing like hands-on experience.”

Lane said his budget will also benefit because it hasn’t had to replenish deicer and sand, both of which can be stockpiled for next winter’s use.

“Last year we built a magesium-chloride storage system in Lebanon and we included a pump so we can recirculate materials for long-term storage,” Lane said. “In general, we haven’t used much material, so we will likely have a carryover.”

Lane said most of his maintenance workers tend to take compensatory time instead of overtime pay.

Lane said staffers are taking advantage of the nice weather by installing more than 100 signs on the Upper Calapooia Road, which will be taken over by the county from Weyerhaeuser.

“We are wrapping up things that need to be done before we can safely say it is open to the public,” Lane said.

County engineer Chuck Knoll said crews are also working on the Truax Bridge and contractors will start on the long-awaited Riverside Drive construction project on Monday.

“Our road maintenance crews are getting a lot of work done due to the lack of snow,” Knoll said. “From a work standpoint, the lack of snow has been beneficial. I’m worried about what that lack of snow will mean this coming summer.”

Oregon Department of Transportation spokeswoman Angela Beers-Seydel echoed Lane’s sentiments.

“We have seen a significant drop in plowing and sanding this winter,” Beers-Seydel said. “But we keep it in the budget on a biennium basis. Sometimes, like last winter, we did twice as much as normal. This year has been well below normal.”

She said a mild winter gives staff the opportunity to work on other projects such as road maintenance, or replacing signs and guard rails.

“Thankfully the sand and deicer don’t go bad, so we will stockpile them for next winter,” Beers-Seydel said. “We have had a few storms in the mountains, but thankfully we have been able to stay on top of them.”