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Southern Oregon still faces drought conditions despite recent storms

Snow survey 2023.png
Shavon Haynes
Oregon Water Resources Department
Austin Patch, OWRD Assistant Watermaster, takes a snow-core sample at the Ski Bowl Road snow course in Southern Oregon. Snowpack at the site is 88% of median as of March 1st. (February 27th, 2023)

Despite a parade of winter storms in Southern Oregon in recent weeks, hydrologists say it’s not enough to undo the effects of multiple years of drought.

Snowpack levels are mostly normal across the state, while overall precipitation levels are generally below normal, according to the Oregon Water Supply Outlook published this month by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We’re seeing close to near-normal streamflow in some parts of western Oregon, that includes southwestern Oregon as well. But there is, overall, a precipitation deficit throughout the Cascades,” said Matt Warbritton, lead hydrologist with the NRCS, who conducted streamflow forecasts for the report.

Snowpack levels in the Rogue-Umpqua Basin are 101% of average and the Klamath Basin is 109% of normal levels. But with cold weather holding much of that precipitation as snow, much of those same regions remain in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The current snowpack will hopefully alleviate some drought concerns as it begins to melt this spring, said Ryan Andrews, a hydrologist with the Oregon Water Resources Department. But current reservoir levels are below normal and snowpack would need to be well-above average to translate to healthy storage levels once it melts, he said.

“I think there’s a very small chance that the reservoirs would fill. I think that’s a very very small chance,” he said.

In the Rogue Valley, Emigrant Lake is currently 23% full, Howard Prairie is 18% full and Hyatt Lake is at 16% capacity.

Precipitation increased slightly in Oregon in February as a series of atmospheric river weather systems moved south into California. The Klamath Basin and southeastern Oregon got the biggest benefit from those weather events. That will help some, but multi-year water deficits and dry soil conditions will soak up precipitation, Warbritton said.

“We can look out the window and see a good amount of snowpack or near-normal snowpack, but we just need to keep those deficits in mind and realize that it’s above normal conditions to offset those conditions,” he said.

With peak snow accumulation usually occurring in mid-March to early April, the coming weeks will help forecast drought conditions in the remainder of the 2023 water year which runs until October, according to the NRCS report.

“We’re coming up on a crucial time where it can really make or break us as we head into summer,” Andrews said.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.