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Snowpack Displays Warming Signs

by Laurence Cruz
Idaho Statesman, January 31, 2003

The unusually low level is not expected to affect the region’s water supplies.

TIMBERLINE LODGE -- When snow hydrologist Stan Fox arrived in pelting rain Thursday at the snow telemetry site on Mount Hood, he saw something that made the visit a first in his 23 years of measuring snowpack in the area:

(Timothy J. Gonzales) Stan Fox, a snow hydrologist with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, weighs a snow sample Thursday on Mount Hood, near Timberline Lodge. A couple of yard-high young firs poked through the meager snowpack.

“I’ve never seen them before in the winter time,” said Fox, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “They’re usually covered with snow.”

Snowpack on Mount Hood and in the Cascades in general is extremely low for the time of year, thanks largely to recent warm temperatures that have pushed the freezing level up to about 7,000 feet this week.

At the half-dozen or so other snow stations in the area, snowpack averaged about 25 percent of normal, Fox said.

At the site below Timberline Lodge on Thursday, it was slightly healthier at 33 percent of normal, Fox said after driving a hollow aluminum measuring tube into the snow. The tube is usually 20 feet or so in length, or six or seven sections. This time, Fox didn't bother assembling more than three sections, making an approximately 8-foot tube.

“The snowpack is Mother Nature’s reservoir, and the ol’ Man’s not producing so much this year,” he said.

The snowpack on Mount Hood is the worst in the state, but the lack of snow doesn’t necessarily spell water shortages later in the year for Portland, Salem and other Willamette Valley cities, which are more dependent on spring rains for water than Eastern Oregon cities.

“I don’t think we’re going to have water supply problems on the west side,” said state climatologist George Taylor. “It certainly isn’t a drought year; it’s just a low snow year.”

Hydropower generation on the Columbia River system is more dependent on snowpack in the Canadian Rockies and the Snake River drainage than on Mount Hood, a spokesman for Bonneville Power Administration said. But at 68 percent to 70 percent of normal, snowpack throughout the basin isn’t great either.

“It’s pretty dismal, in fact,” spokesman Ed Mosey said.

Bonneville, the federal agency that markets power generated from dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers, will announce across-the-board rate increases next week, in part because of the low streamflow forecasts, Mosey said.

In a normal year, the agency earns about 20 percent of its revenues from sales of surplus power to California in winter, enabling it to keep rates low in the Northwest, he said.

“But our inability to earn our projected surplus power sales revenues is digging us into a hole,” Mosey said.

The agency’s forecast is for about 78 million acre-feet of water passing The Dalles from January to July, or about 72 percent of normal, Mosey said. An acre-foot is equivalent to 1 foot of water spread over an acre.

Statewide, snowpack is 49 percent of normal, Fox said.

In the Willamette basin, it’s 38 percent. In the Rogue basin, it’s 75 percent — the highest in the state, he said.

Rainfall totals around Oregon, measured from the start of the water year Oct. 1, are about normal, though the southern half of the state has much higher percentages than the northern, Taylor said. In Salem, rainfall was slightly below normal as of Thursday morning, at about 20 inches, he said.

At Mount Hood and other areas, the snowpack was much better at the start of January, but warm temperatures — about 4 degrees above normal — washed away much of the snow.

Colder weather is forecast for Friday and into next week, bringing freezing levels down to 3,000 feet or 4,000 feet, said meteorologist Wanda Likens with the National Weather Service.

Storms are expected to dump much-needed snow on Mount Hood, where only a handful of snowboarders were seen braving the rain Thursday.

“It’s definitely been an unusual year,” said Dave Tragethon, marketing director for Mount Hood Meadows Ski Resort.

“With lower temperatures, (the resort) could very easily have gotten 60 inches of snow” this week, he said.

Laurence Cruz
Snowpack Displays Warming Signs
Idaho Statesman, January 31, 2003

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