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High and dry

Despite near-normal rainfall this winter, an abysmal snowpack is setting new record lows here and throughout Western Oregon, causing water and recreation managers to cringe at the prospect of a second consecutive year of drought in Southern Oregon.

Heading into February, the Rogue and Umpqua river basins are sporting a snowpack of just 18 percent of average — less than the 22 percent of average that set a record this time last year.

It's even worse at places like Diamond Lake, which was listed Friday as snowless, something that's never been seen there, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"It's shocking," says Julie Koeberle, a hydrologist with NRCS's snow-survey program in Portland. "This year is replacing last year's records, and it's looking pretty grim in your neck of the woods. But I don't want to worry too soon."

Federal climate forecasters are predicting continued warmer-than-average temperatures, Koeberle says.

"There's still time for improvement," she says. "There's still hope."

Reservoirs such as Howard Prairie that limped into this winter nearly dry from last summer's drought are ice-free and snowless from a warm January. That doesn't bode well for irrigators or Howard Prairie Resort, which struggled all last year getting visitors to the water.

"We're about 12 feet lower than this time last year," Jackson County Parks Manager Steve Lambert says. "It's still about a foot below the toe of the ramp at the resort.

"We knew last year was going to be a challenging year," Lambert says. "This year will be even worse. That's OK. We can adjust."

But being 12 feet shy of last year is a major worry for Manager Jim Pendleton of the Talent Irrigation District, who had a far better bank of stored mid-winter water last year to make up for what didn't fall.

"Last year we had a relatively decent pool headed into the season," says Pendleton, whose district delivers water from four reservoirs to 16,500 acres of land. "This year we're struggling to build it."

TID's reservoirs are snow-dependent, but even rain will help.

"If it falls now, at the very least we can collect it in the reservoirs," Pendleton says. "It's better than nothing."

Two of the few waterbodies not looking worse than last year are Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs. The larger U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilities rely far more on rainfall than snowmelt, and they have benefited from when and how this season's precipitation has fallen.

The Corps started filling Lost Creek on Jan. 1 and feasted on runoff from late December storms. The lake is 2½ feet above its normal filling curve and 12 feet above this time last year, says Jim Buck, the Corps' Rogue Basin project manager.

Applegate Lake, which the Corps officially starts to fill Sunday, is 8½ feet above its filling schedule and 40 feet higher than this time last year, largely because the Corps did not purge all the water it captured during this month's rains, Buck says.

"Our plan was to not aggressively evacuate water and then all of a sudden immediately fall behind," Buck says.

Over the past four months, the basin's rainfall is at 92 percent of average, according to the NRCS.

"If all of that had fallen as snow, we'd be in a lot better shape," Koeberle says.

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

Howard Prairie Lake, a reservoir in in southeastern Jackson County, is about 12 feet lower than it was at this time last year. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Docks rest in the mud at Howard Prairie Lake on Friday as precipitation continues to be in short supply. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch