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A bit on the dry side

No one is ready to start uttering the dreaded "D" word just yet.

After all, there still are two months of winter left in the year to build up the mountain snow, the mid-elevation mountain snowpack isn't too shabby and the weather pattern that has kept interior southwest Oregon dry in January seems to be losing its grip.

Yet water-watchers, mindful of the importance of the snowpack for summer irrigation, stream flows and wildlife habitat, are keeping an eye on troubling indicators that could be an early warning of drought conditions.

Local rainfall is below normal as are local stream flows and some high-elevation snowpacks.

"I'd prefer to see some snow and rain right now — when we have a minimal snowpack it makes us nervous," said Jim Pendleton, manager of the Talent Irrigation District which relies on reservoirs whose storage depends on runoff from the mountain snowpack.

"But it's way too soon to get spun up about the lack of water," he added. "It can turn around with one good storm."

In fact, both Hyatt and Howard Prairie reservoirs in the Cascade Range, the principal water sources where the district stores water for summer irrigation, are at 70 to 80 percent of full pool, he said.

"We had a huge snowpack to play with last year so we had adequate carryover in the reservoirs," he said, adding that illustrates the success of the reservoir system.

"But we'll be paying attention," he said of the coming storms.

Indeed, he knows that Mother Nature has been miserly when it comes to pouring rain on the Rogue River and Bear Creek valleys since the local water year began Sept. 1.

On Friday, rainfall at the Medford airport where the National Weather Service monitors precipitation was only 6.53 inches since September, more than 3 inches below the average 9.68 inches for this time of year. January rainfall is nine-tenths of an inch, about half of the 1.76-inch average for the month thus far.

While the statewide snowpack is near average, there are some high elevations sites in Southern Oregon where it is well below normal, said Jon Lea, Oregon snow survey supervisor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The agency works with the U.S. Forest Service to keep tabs on mountain winter snowpacks by taking both manual surveys and using snow telemetry (snotel) devices that automatically measure the water content in the snow at remote sites.

The snotel site at Big Red Mountain near Mount Ashland, at 6,050 feet above sea level, reported a snow-water content of 7.6 inches, putting it at 52 percent of average, Lea said. Last year at this time the snotel site registered 22.6 inches of snow water, reflecting 138 percent of average.

The snotel report from King Mountain near Azalea recently indicated the snowpack at 4,340 feet had only a half inch of snow-water content, an extremely low 21 percent of average.

At the end of January a year ago the King Mountain snotel site reported 16.6 inches of water, which was a whopping 488 percent of average.

Lea agreed with Pendleton that there is plenty of time to make up the snowpack deficit. The statewide snowpack and rainfall are both 96 percent of average, he said.

And some snotel sites in Southern Oregon are showing good results. Near Diamond Late, at 5,280 feet, the current measure is 125 percent of average for this time of year, with 13.9 inches of snow water, he said.

Overall, the mountains ringing the Rogue-Umpqua basin have a current snowpack average of 92 percent with 94 percent of precipitation, he said.

"But it's still fairly early in the year — we still have lots of winter left," he said.

The National Weather Service is calling for rain today and Sunday in Jackson and Josephine counties. More rain is expected in the coming week.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Daisy Creek is just a trickle as it runs next to the pathway at Albert “Doc” Griffin Memorial Park on Friday in Jacksonville. Rainfall, according to measurements taken since Sept. 1 at the Medford airport, show totals more than 3 inches below normal. - Jim Craven