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Dry, but no drought — yet

It may have been wetter than usual this weekend in the Rogue Valley, but weather officials say the rest of the month will likely shift back to a familiar thirsty pattern.

"It looks dry again for much of the month. January won't be a good month overall," said National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Sandler.

That dry forecast has become the norm as of late. Rainfall for Medford in 2013 was 8.99 inches, the lowest on record. As of Jan. 1, the amount of water in snowpack and precipitation for the Rogue and Umpqua basins was at a small fraction of the typical amounts. Stream flows in Southern Oregon rivers also are recording record lows.­­

The trend doesn't look to improve this month.

"The seasonal outlook is calling for the (dry weather) to persist. The question will be whether it worsens," Sandler said.

Because of the weekend rains and the fact it's still somewhat early in the water year, which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, hydrologists, irrigators and meteorologists say they're not quite to the panic stage yet. But the word "drought" is on their collective minds.

"I'm teetering about being concerned," said Julie Koeberle, hydrologist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. "I really am honestly right there on the fence. I don't want to sugarcoat it at all, but I keep reminding myself that we still have time to improve."

Until conversations about planning for the "D" word start happening, scientists continue to keep an eye on water levels daily.

The Army Corps of Engineers said Lost Creek Lake was about 39 percent of its 315,000-acre-feet capacity Thursday. Applegate reported a pool of about 2,000 acre-feet, a puddle compared with its 71,000-acre-feet capacity.

Army Corps project manager Jim Buck said the two lakes are, ideally, not at full capacity any year as a way to allow additional storage for rain and snow melt. However, Lost Creek is still about 5 feet shallower than Army Corps officials' preferred 60-foot buffer. Applegate is about 25 feet below its typical 98-foot buffer.

"It's exceptionally low," said Army Corps project manager Jim Buck.

On Thursday, the low levels prompted an 18-percent reduction in the amount of Lost Creek water released into the Rogue River, dropping flows there from 1,100 cubic feet per second to 900 cfs. Buck said water officials hoped the weekend rains would supplement the amount so the cutback wouldn't be as noticeable.

The Army Corps, Oregon Department of Water Resources and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are in contact weekly. If the dry trend continues, the flow could be restricted further.

"At a certain point, (we) have to get together and say, 'If it continues to be very dry, should we cut back the release?' " Buck said.

Emigrant, Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes are all below capacity, with Emigrant at about 22 percent of its 39,000-acre-feet capacity, about 24 feet lower than optimal, Talent Irrigation District officials said. The lakes are utilized by TID, which delivers water to about 3,000 mostly agricultural customers.

"It's on our radar. It always is," said irrigation district manager Jim Pendleton of the less-than-favorable water measurements. "When you're watching the snowpack and precipitation, it'll raise your hackles a little bit."

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey show Chetco River flows were at or below 300 cubic feet per second for the period of Jan. 1-8 — 10 percent or less of the normal flows of 3,000 to 4,000 cfs for that time period. The Illinois River also continues to report lower-than normal flows, hovering between 100 and 200 cfs, USGS data shows. The river's normal flow is close to 2,000 cfs. Both rivers have seen a slight uptick in streamflow since Thursday.

The numbers didn't improve higher up. As of Jan. 1, the amount of water found in snowpack around the Rogue Basin was at 19 percent of the normal amount. Overall precipitation for Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 was 29 percent of the average amount.

Crater Lake, normally covered by 70-plus inches of snow at this point in the year, reported about 9 inches at midweek. That followed a snowfall of about 5 inches. On Tuesday morning, the 4 inches at the park's weather station was the least since record-keeping began in 1931.

The thin layer covering the Mt. Ashland Ski Area has kept the ski lifts closed and prompted Mt. Ashland officials to hold a "Pray For Snow" event Saturday.

The Rogue Basin isn't alone in its watery woes. A report released by NRCS last week said snowpack was at 32 percent of the normal levels statewide as of Jan. 1.

"The western part of Oregon is experiencing some of the lowest snowpacks on record," the report reads.

Despite the bleak outlook, water officials say it's too early to panic.

Data from past years show sudden turnarounds can happen, that it only takes one big storm to turn an otherwise dry year wet.

"We've seen too many late winter months that'll turn the season around," Pendleton said, adding this kind of weather later in the year would be much more concerning. "If we went through February into March, I'd be considerably more nervous."

Koeberle referred to early 1990 as an example of a sudden, rapid turnaround in weather patterns. Three months into the water year, which starts Oct. 1, several sites around the Rogue Basin were recording low levels. The site at Four Mile Lake, for example, had recorded 2.9 inches of water in the snowpack and 7.3 inches of precipitation between Oct. 1, 1989 and Jan. 1, 1990, according to NRCS data. But within a few days, the snow-water equivalent more than tripled, and precipitation almost doubled.

"They rebounded," Koeberle said. "That year ended up being an almost normal snowpack."

The Four Mile Lake site had 2.5 inches of water in the snowpack and 6 inches of precipitation between Oct. 1, 2013, and Jan. 1, 2014. Those numbers haven't budged much, so some considerable catching up needs to be done, NRCS officials said.

"This February and March will need to have above-average snow accumulation if the 2014 snowpack is to rise above the lowest snow levels on record," the NRCS report reads.

Some area municipalities also are hopeful for a turnaround. The Big Butte Springs watershed, from which the Medford Water Commission pulls its water, had received only 4 inches of precipitation as of last week for the water year.

But every year is different, public information coordinator Laura Hodnett said. On average, Big Butte Springs collects about 45 percent of the water year's precipitation between January and April. But those amounts vary year to year. The 2011-12 water year, for example, got off to a poor start, but then things turned around in a big way.

"We got 22 inches in those four months," Hodnett said. "Typically we only get 14."

Hodnett added she is confident water restrictions will not be necessary in the city of Medford.

Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught said he's not yet worried about drought conversations. Snowpack and Ashland Creek streamflow measurements in April are the critical tells of whether water curtailment discussions need to happen, he said.

"April 30 is really more critical to us," Faught said.

Ashland officials added that conservation programs instituted within the city have helped cut back on water use. City water conservation specialist Julie Smitherman said irrigation evaluations provided during 2013 reduced water use by about 5 million gallons for the year.

"We target that as our main program during the summer," Smitherman said. "It does make me feel better knowing we have programs in place."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com.

With Southern Oregon in the midst of a long dry spell, Applegate Lake is about 25 feet below its normal level for this time of year, and other bodies of water are showing similarly low levels.