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Winter could return to area today

The first significant winter storms of the year are forecast to roll into Southern Oregon today, and over the ensuing week they could drop 2 feet of snow in the mountains and up to 3 inches of rain in the Rogue Valley.

But the runoff generated from these wet systems won't be enough to stave off major water shortfalls in Lost Creek and Applegate lakes, although skiers and snowboarders still hope that enough snow falls to get the Mt. Ashland Ski Area up and running.

"We're anxiously watching what's out there," ski area General Manager Kim Clark says. "If we get 8 or 9 inches of good, wet snow, we can move in and start compacting.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed. "We're ready to rock," Clark says.

The region finally will see the first of the tropical-bred storms — the kinds most commonly seen here in December — roll in now that the weather patterns that have kept Eastern states in a snowy freeze and the West Coast parched have finally eased, according to the National Weather Service.

"Our patterns are changing significantly," weather service meteorologist Sven Nelaimischkies says. "That blocking pattern has shifted, so system after system after system will start moving into our area through the next week.

"It's starting to look like a December pattern, something we haven't seen in two months," he says.

"It will probably leave a couple of feet of snow before it's all through."

Upper Ashland residents could awake to a dusting of snow this morning as the first of a series of fronts brings light snows and rains, with snow levels rising to 2,500 feet by this afternoon, likely leaving mountain passes messy much of the day, Nelaimischkies says.

The heaviest rains and mountain snows will come in Saturday, but parched soils will soak up much of the rainfall, so "flooding is not on our radar right now," Nelaimischkies says.

Neither is significant surface runoff into the region's reservoirs, which remain far lower than normal, thanks largely to 2013 being the driest calendar year on record in Medford.

Past storm fronts this winter have come in from the north, often underachieving on rain and snow totals. They have left the Rogue River and Umpqua basins with a collective snowpack listed Thursday at 20 percent of average and rendered the region's reservoirs well below their normal midwinter levels.

Lost Creek Lake, the largest reservoir in Jackson County, is 12 feet below its normal level for Feb. 5 and 1 foot lower than it was on that date in 2001, the last official drought year in Jackson County.

To keep on its normal filling schedule for February, the reservoir would have to see a steady inflow of at least 1,443 cubic feet per second, says Jim Buck, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations manager at the reservoir.

But inflows there Thursday were just 1,297 cfs, and the incoming rains are forecast to peak at 2,800 cfs on Feb. 14 then drop "like a rock" after that, Buck says.

By the following day, Lost Creek Lake is forecast to be 20 feet shy of its regular filling schedule — 8 feet farther behind than when the storm fronts began, Buck says.

The water woes are even worse at Applegate Lake, which enters the storm 38 feet behind its filling schedule and 5 feet lower than it was at this time during the 2001 drought, Buck says.

Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs have filled each year since 2001.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.