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Dry December expected to give way to wetter winter

We're more than a week into the wettest month of the year, and it's looking dryish.

Meteorologist Brett Lutz of the National Weather Service in Medford said Southern Oregon could go another week without rain and snow.

But forecasters are still expecting a wetter and slightly colder winter than normal, based on modeling done with data from the Pacific Ocean, Lutz said. A dry spell in December isn't cause for worry ... yet.

"We're pretty confident it should not be a drought year," Lutz said. "We looked at the state of the Pacific Ocean in the fall, and the projection we came up with was a wetter-than-normal winter."

La Nina conditions, created by colder-than-normal water in the central Pacific Ocean, are part of that prediction, Lutz said. La Ninas tend to bring wet weather to the Northwest, opposite of El Ninos, which often produce drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a colder-than-normal winter for southern Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

That was the case last year, when much of Southern Oregon had epic snow, among the most in the last 50 years. Cave Junction had 2 feet on the ground in early January.

Medford finished the 2016-17 water year Sept. 30 with 25.21 inches of rain, 37 percent above normal.

Lutz said predictions for this winter are reinforced by the fact that conditions are similar to those in 1981-82, 1996-97, 2005-06, and last winter — all wet winters.

That's encouraging for Mt. Ashland Ski Area, which had 20-30 inches of snow by Thanksgiving but quickly lost most of it to a warm spell. Even with some snow in the last week, the lodge area currently has only 9 inches, and upper slopes have 12 to 18, said Hiram Towle, general manager of the ski area. Almost 2 feet more is needed.

"We'll open the very next day there's enough snow to ski on," Towle said.

The target opening date of Saturday isn't going to happen. But the annual Snow Stomp celebration is still set for people to come get photos for season passes, hear live music and check out the renovations at the lodge. Slopes will be open for sledding. It begins at 2 p.m.

A year ago with abundant snow, the ski area opened Dec. 4, and December brought record monthly income of over $1 million. Skier visits were up 41 percent over 2015.

As of Tuesday, Oregon's overall water content of snow was 60 percent of average, after being at 200 percent in mid-November, said Scott Oviatt, snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Oregon.

"This extended dry period has people scratching their heads a little," Oviatt said.

Portland hasn't seen 10 consecutive rain-free days in December since 2009, and "that's where we're headed," Oviatt said.

At 82 percent, the water content of snow in the Umpqua and Rogue basins is the highest in the state. Crater Lake has 33 inches of snow at headquarters, and often has 8 to 15 feet on the ground by the end of winter.

The Klamath Basin has 74 percent of its normal snowpack water content, while Deschutes is at 60 percent and far Eastern Oregon is at 38 percent.

A smattering of snow sits on Mount Ashland, as warm and dry conditions in recent weeks have limited snow accumulation. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]