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Beefy snowpack has drought on the run

El Nino storms have created a vibrant snowpack and put Southern Oregon on pace to break the chain of two consecutive drought years, but water managers are cautious about declaring the big "D" over just yet.

The heavy, wet snows that downed hundreds of trees in the south Cascades and shut Highway 230 between Union Creek and Diamond Lake for more than a week is so rich with water that the Rogue and Umpqua river basins collectively sport a snowpack with a water content of 174 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The snowpack last New Year's Day was just 32 percent of average, according to the NRCS.

"That's really good news for your neck of the woods," says hydrologist Julie Koeberle from the NRCS's snow-survey program in Portland. "That's what we want to see, especially after a year like we had last year."

While the 2015 drought declaration formally ended with the new year for Jackson, Josephine and 24 other Oregon counties, state and federal water managers now have southwestern Oregon officially listed as "likely" for removal of drought status.

That status could be revisited when the consortium of water-related state and federal agencies meet in three weeks to discus snow and water status statewide in the first of a series of monthly meetings.

"Based on what we've seen here, it's difficult to say the drought is over," says Diana Enright, spokeswoman for the Oregon Water Resources Department in Salem. "While conditions look good, it could change quickly if we don't get additional precipitation."

The El Nino currents responsible for December's heavy storms may continue to boost the favorable water outlook in Southern Oregon, where the latest long-range forecasts suggest warmer- and wetter-than-average weather for the first three months of 2016, Koeberle says.

"Right now, though, it's still so early and things can go either way, depending upon where you are in the state," Koeberle says.

The December storms are noteworthy for the amounts of snow, how wet that snow is and how widespread the flakes were in the south Cascades and Siskiyou mountains, according to the NRCS.

The Rogue Valley's overall snow depth is 130 percent of average heading into January, but the 174-percent water equivalency means the hillsides are acting like little reservoirs, storing water to run off later into creeks, rivers and, in some cases, lakes.

Bigelow Camp and Fish Lake, both in the 5,100- to 5,300-foot elevation range, had snow-water equivalencies Thursday of 265 percent and 259 percent of average, respectively, according to the NRCS.

But Rogue Basin creeks often live and die by mid-elevation snows, and the early showing here also is strong, NRCS data shows.

King Mountain in the Siskiyous, at 4,340 feet above sea level, had more than 9 inches of snow Thursday for a snowpack that's 126 percent of average, NRCS data shows. However, it was so heavy and thick that its snow-water equivalency was 657 percent of average, according to the NRCS.

December snows caused power losses and road closures from trees snapping beneath the weight of the thick snow in the Union Creek and Greensprings areas.

"It's a fair trade-off," says Manager Jim Pendleton of the Talent Irrigation District. "I'll take those problems to get this snowpack." 

TID relies heavily on Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant reservoirs, which remain very low after last year's drought, and Pendleton knows a warm rain can send that mid-elevation snow cascading downstream and out the Rogue River if it melts too early and too quickly.

"It needs to come off low and slow," Pendleton says.

While all the reservoirs have risen in the past month, Hyatt Lake was listed Thursday at just 12 percent of full, with Howard Prairie at 17 percent of capacity and Emigrant up to 20 percent of capacity, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

"Full-pool reservoirs and a little snowpack up there, and we'll be in good shape," Pendleton says. "While I'm breathing a little easier, I'm not ready to tap out on the drought yet."

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

Lexie Clark, 11, of Medford, sleds at Bethel Church in east Medford after one of December's storms brought snow to Southern Oregon. Mail Tribune file photo