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On the rise

ASHLAND — A wet and snowy winter coupled with a slow snowmelt has the big-three reservoirs of the Talent Irrigation District refilling at the slow and steady pace that water managers pine for.

Hyatt and Howard Prairie lakes were down around all-time lows last October but both have risen over the half-full level for the first time since summer 2014, according to federal Bureau of Reclamation statistics.

Heavy rains all winter also have triggered enough runoff that the lower-elevation Emigrant Lake has risen to 87 percent full without siphoning water from the two other reservoirs higher in the Cascades.

Collectively, they put TID and other irrigation districts that rely on these three reservoirs in prime shape for a full irrigation season after three straight years of drought.

"We've had good recovery, no question," TID Manager Jim Pendleton says. "We're catching everything we can. It's helpful, but I don't think they'll fill."

Current estimates have Howard Prairie topping out at around 45,000 acre-feet of water and about three-quarters full, according to the bureau. This reservoir off Dead Indian Memorial Road bottomed out in mid-October at 8,300 acre-feet, or 13 percent of capacity.

The October levels as Hyatt Lake off Highway 66 were even more dismal in October, when the 900 acre-feet of stored water represented just 5 percent of capacity, bureau statistics show. Steady runoff has pushed it to 54 percent full Wednesday, with a forecast to top out later this spring at 9,000 acre-feet, or three-quarters full.

Emigrant Lake, where water levels are manipulated by drawing water from Hyatt and Howard Prairie, was at 93 percent full Wednesday after being at 50 percent capacity in October, according to the bureau.

That increase has come largely from direct runoff, allowing TID to curb flows out of Howard Prairie to about 10 cubic feet per second, Pendleton says. That's about 20 percent of the normal late March outflow there, he says.

The Rogue and Klamath basins' snowpacks have been well over average throughout this wet and white winter influenced by El Niño ocean currents. The water levels in the Rogue Basin's snowpack had pushed close to 150 percent of average in mid-winter, but they have since shrunk to 113 percent of average.

"We're dropping, but at the same time we're ahead of the curve," says Scott Oviatt, snow survey program supervisor for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland. "Remember, we were at 30 percent or less snowpack last year at this time."

The high-elevation snowpack in the Rogue Basin has held up well, despite warm weather and rains that have shrunk the mid- and low-elevation snowpack, Oviatt says.

But that shrinkage has occurred in a rather steady fashion the past month in amounts that has TID's Pendleton pleased.  

"Even though it's dwindling, it's coming off slow enough that we can capture it in the collection system," Pendleton says.

What threatens that continued slow melt is a high-pressure system that brings in warm weather, and that's just what is forecast on the horizon.

Oviatt says forecasts are now calling for temperatures in the 70s in the Rogue Valley and as high as the 50s at high elevations beginning mid next week. But water worriers will be focusing on whether high-elevation temperatures drop below freezing at night.

"The key is going to be if we can maintain cooler nighttime temperatures," Oviatt says. "If not, that would be a big detriment."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Spring runoff flows into Howard Prairie Lake on Tuesday. Hyatt and Howard Prairie both are half-full for the first time since summer 2014. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch