On the last day of his job as a snow ranger, Steve Johnson drove Tuesday to within 100 feet of the Ski Bowl Road snow-survey site high in the Bear Creek drainage on Mount Ashland.
That was only the second time in more than a quarter-of-a-century of measuring snow for the end-of-April survey that the Siskiyou Mountains District recreational specialist didn't have to strap on skis or snowshoes to reach the 6,000-foot site.
"I've only done that one other time, in 1992, when there was no snow," he observed Tuesday afternoon after driving to the survey site. "We're losing our snowpack pretty fast."
There were only 10 inches of snow at the site, 20 percent of the average 51 inches usually found there at the end of April, said Johnson, who retires at the end of May. He measures three snow-survey sites on the mountain at the end of April for the final survey of the year.
The snow's water content is only 5 inches, 23 percent of average. The median snow-water content for the April survey is 21.5 inches at the site.
What's more, the snow-water content for the mountains ringing the Rogue and Umpqua basins is now at 52 percent, compared with 97 percent at the end of April 2012, he said.
"April continued the pattern that began in January with below-normal precipitation," he reported. "Combined with recent warm weather, unlike the past two springs, the snowpack is melting rapidly.
"The last two springs were cold and wet and prolonged," he added. "Not this year."
Johnson measured 52 inches of snow at the Ski Bowl Road site this time last year.
The mountain snowpack, with its all-important water content, reflects how much water is available naturally to feed summer stream flows, irrigation and reservoir storage.
The U.S. Forest Service works with the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service to gather the snowpack information. The Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District is in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Johnson found more snow at two other snow survey sites higher on the mountain.
Up at the Mount Ashland switchback site at 6,500 feet, the snow depth was 44 inches, or 59 percent of average. The snow-water content was 20.7 inches for 68 percent of average.
At the Caliban II site, also at 6,500 feet, the snow was 52 inches deep, 72 percent of average. The water content was 24.2 inches, 83 percent of average.
The Siskiyou summit snow-survey site at 4,600 feet, which is measured during the winter, is not measured in the last snow survey of the year.
"It is very interesting that the water content at 6,500 feet is four to five times higher than that at 6,000 feet," he observed. "This all goes back to some of those December storms where the snow level was just above 6,000, which was the reason for the early opening of Mount Ashland with 4 to 5 feet of snow.
"Every year has been different in my 24-plus years of conducting surveys," he added.
He took over the snow-survey job in 1989 but helped out for three or four years before that, he said.
His continuous service as a snow ranger is the longest on record for the forest, officials said. However, the snow survey is a small part of his work.
"Other than a cold, brisk wind, it was relatively easy today," he said. "I've been up there in blizzard conditions. When you come down, you are the only one on the mountain and the freeway is closed. I've had some cold, miserable, long days up there.
"But most of the time it was very enjoyable," he added. "It's been a great job."
Since the water year began Sept. 1, 15.8 inches of rain have been recorded at the Medford airport, where the National Weather Service has a station. The average precipitation at the station is 15.69 inches for this time of year.
More information about Oregon's mountain snowpack is available at www.or.nrcs.usda.gov/snow.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.