A late season snowstorm gave Central Oregonians a glimmer of hope that the drought, among the most severe in the region’s history, could be alleviated. Oregon’s Snotel precipitation report found the Upper Deschutes received about 99% of the median yearly snowfall.
That figure may be a bit misleading, according to experts, and on April 25 Gov. Kate Brown announced drought declarations in Deschutes, Grant, Lake and Malheur Counties, joining Gilliam, Morrow, Jefferson, Crook, Harney, Klamath and Jackson counties that have already been declared to be in a drought.
“In most of Central Oregon and the surrounding basins the total precipitation, that includes rainfall and snowfall, was well below where it should have been,” said state climatologist Larry O’Neill. “So even though we got some snowpack, this late in the season we typically don't have very much on the ground now. So, the percentages make it look like we have more water than we do.”
Central Oregon typically gets 60-80% of its water between October and March, and though the Upper Deschutes is near the median, its total precipitation is still 11% short of the median. The snow itself hit at an inopportune time.
Even if both precipitation and snowpack reached normal levels it’d still be a game of catch-up to avoid drought. For the past three years Central Oregon’s gotten less precipitation than it needed, causing an expanding water deficit that needs more than a year of typical precipitation.
“For us to have recovered from the drought this year, we would have had to have something like 150-200% of normal precipitation,” O’Neill said. “As it turns out, in most of central Oregon got something like 50-75%, of average. So it was really short of being able to recover some of the water deficits that we've accrued. And, in fact, we've actually added more water deficit on top of that.”
That one big snowstorm doesn’t help as much as consistent precipitation to replenish groundwater.
“The stream flows didn't recover very much over a long enough period of time. So we still know that we still have a huge water deficits in basically our shallow groundwater systems, and then also in our surface water like lakes and ponds,” O’Neill said.
The amount of snowfall may not be enough to get the region out of its drought, but it’s still better than nothing. The late snow will benefit people, especially agricultural producers in north Central Oregon like Sherman, Morrow and Umatilla counties.
“The silver lining is that it wasn't like last spring where we had the driest spring on record for the state. So, we're getting some water now, which is good for dryland agriculture. And it's good for people who have planted already and are relying on holding back the start of irrigation season,” O’Neill said. “But that won't necessarily be true everywhere.”
“For us to have recovered from the drought this year, we would have had to have something like 150-200% of normal precipitation.” — Larry O'Neill
The snowpack also helps delay the fire season, which some experts feared could start as early as May rather than a typical June start.
“Holding on to the snowpack a little longer, we could expect the fire season to kind of be pushed back a couple more weeks, depending on how long you hold on to the snow,” O’Neill said. “The fire danger when we go into August and September is dependent a lot on the temperatures and any precipitation we get during the summer, but it does kind of keep the fields wetter a little longer.”
About 90% of Oregon is in varying severity of drought, but northwest Oregon actually fared well this year compared to the rest of the state.
“In northwest Oregon we did great, a lot of the drought has been kind of recovered. Nowhere in the state has an excess of water, but, I think water supplies are adequate in northwest Oregon, the rest of the state we clearly don't have enough,” O’Neill said. “This little bit of precipitation we got the last couple of weeks, because it happened in April, it sounds really dramatic, but it's the same amount of precipitation that would have occurred during that really dry period we had in January, February of this year.”