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Regional snowpack is subpar

Mother Nature's mountain coat is looking mighty threadbare for the end of January in southwest Oregon.

The snow water content was only 46 percent of normal in the four snow survey sites measured Thursday by snow ranger Steve Johnson in the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

The snow depth was only 48 percent of normal at the sites but the snow water content — the amount of water contained in the snow — tells the real story.

The mountain snow pack serves as a frozen "water bank" that determines how much water will be available during spring and summer snow melt for stream flows and reservoir storage.

All four survey sites are in the Siskiyou Summit and Mount Ashland area.

"The Siskiyous just aren't getting the same amount of snow as the Cascades this winter," observed Johnson, a veteran snow surveyor with more than 20 years experience in the Siskiyous. "I've seen it happen in the past. Of course, I've also seen it the other way around."

The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service keep tabs on mountain snow depth each winter around the state. In addition to taking manual measurements, the agencies employ snow telemetry (snotel) devices that automatically measure the water content in the snow at remote mountain sites.

Unlike most January surveys, Johnson was able to walk into the first three survey sites on Thursday.

"Last year at this time it was a raging blizzard, Interstate 5 was closed and the Siskiyou Summit site set an all-time record for depth and water content," he said. Thursday was sunny and pleasant.

The Siskiyou Summit, elevation 4,600 feet, showed the most promise with a snow water content of 5.9 inches, or 113 percent of normal. The snow depth was 16 inches, reflecting an 84 percent average.

But the Ski Bowl Road site at 6,000 feet had only 7.3 inches of snow water content, making it roughly 44 percent of normal. The depth at that point was 25 inches, or 45 percent of normal.

The snow water at the Mount Ashland Switchback, 6,500 feet elevation, was 40 percent of average at 8.2 inches. There was 25 inches of snow for 38 percent of normal.

And the Caliban II site, also 6,500 feet elevation, had 37 percent normal water content with 7.3 inches. Snow depth was 30 inches, or 50 percent of normal.

Overall, the four sites are 46 percent of normal when it comes to water content, Johnson reported. The snow depth for all the sites is 48 percent of normal, he added.

The mountain snowpack ringing both the Rogue and Umpqua basins have a snow water content of 86 percent, Johnson said. Elsewhere in the state it is 91 percent of normal in the Willamette Pass area and 110 percent of normal on Mount Hood.

In California, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is about 61 percent of its usual depth for the end of January, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

But Johnson stressed there's still time for the mountains to pack on enough snow for an average winter.

"It's a little harder to catch up now but that's not to say we can't," he said. "In 2005 we were having a similar year but we caught up by the end of April."

Two or three big storms laden with moisture could make the difference, he said.

In Medford, January normally brings about 2.25 inches of rainfall but only 1.52 inches have fallen so far this month, according to the National Weather Service. Since the rainfall season began Sept. 1, precipitation at the weather station at the Medford airport is a little more than 7 inches, some 3 inches below normal for the end of January.