Is it too early to be worried about the snowpack levels in the mid-valley?

Well, it is early February, so time remains for a last batch of winter storms to bring the snowpack here back to average levels. It could be that we'll get one of those storms over the next day or two. If that happens, it could snarl travel today and Tuesday — but as you cope with the potential of slick roads, it might help a bit to remember that there could be a payoff for our travel woes high in the region's mountains.

It's always worthwhile to keep an eye on the state of the region's snowpack, and for a very good reason: The snowpack is an important indicator of how our summer will go. Will our forests dry out weeks or months before they should, leading to a busy fire season? Will farmers have adequate water supplies for irrigation? Will we have enough water to ensure a strong recreation season, with fishing and rafting and all the other activities that we enjoy in an Oregon summer?

Thus far this year, there is reason for concern. Officials with the Natural Resources Conservation Service say that snowpack statewide remains well below normal. The amounts vary across the state, of course, and there are some interesting numbers to ponder: For example, the Willamette Valley basin has a snow water equivalent level of about 54 percent of normal.

The basin that's faring the worst thus far this year is around Mount Hood and the Lower Deschutes, with a snow water equivalent of about 49 percent of normal.

In Southern Oregon, which has been victimized by years of drought, the number isn't much better: As of last week, its snow water equivalent was at about 61 percent of normal. (In terms of drought, however, it's worth remembering that all of Oregon remains under some degree of drought designation, which puts a priority on efforts to conserve water wherever possible. This could be the new normal, even for traditionally rain-soaked western Oregon.)

East of the Cascades, this year's snowpack numbers start to look better, with averages ranging from 83 percent of normal (John Day) to 101 (the Umatilla, Walla Walla and Willow basin). 

Statewide, we're sitting at about 67 percent, which reflects the lower snowpack numbers on the western side of the state. 

In a normal year, much of the snowpack that helps create adequate stream flows into the summer months accumulates in December and January, but both of those months were drier than usual this season. The long-range forecast for February is mixed, at least as far as snowpack goes: Forecasters at the National Weather Service said last week that chances are good the month will be drier and cooler than usual. Drier conditions, obviously, won't do much for snowpack — but a string of cooler days could help preserve what snowpack there is for a little longer.

As far as the implications for wildfires, it's never a good sign when snowpack lags behind average. And it didn't help that January brought warmer-than-usual temperatures throughout the Pacific Northwest, which sometimes means that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Even though the mid-valley may experience cooler temperatures than usual this month, the National Weather Service thinks that March, April and May may bring warmer-than-usual weather.

The good news, at least for the next few months, is that the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which tracks fire potential nationwide, sees a normal potential for significant wildland fires in the Northwest through May. 

The bad news, of course, is that the fire experts at the center likely will see fit to revise that prediction, unless the next two months bring a significant dose of moisture to the region. Try to keep that in mind while you're coping with whatever the weather brings the next couple of days. (mm)

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