GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Oregon's mountain snowpack, vital for farms, fish and ski resorts, is in the midst of another miserable year, posting record low depths despite normal precipitation.
The reason is persistent warm weather, which is turning into the new normal as the climate heats up.
"We are really kind of staring climate change right in the eye right now," said Kathie Dello, associated director of the Oregon Climate Change Institute at Oregon State University.
While there will still be plentiful snowpacks in some years, overall the trend is for them to decline as average temperatures continue to rise, she said.
"Last year we had a bad fire season, and that is in part due to the lack of snow," which left the ground bare, and prone to dry out, she added.
Snow that builds up in the mountains serves as a natural reservoir, feeding streams and replenishing groundwater as it melts.
Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Julie Koeberle says there is time for things to improve, but expectations are low. Long-range forecasts call for warm weather, with no clear indication whether it will be wetter or drier than normal. Meanwhile, some snow measurement sites are their lowest since the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
"It really depends on what happens in February," Koeberle said. "Come March, the writing will be on the wall for sure."
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows drought spreading and intensifying across Oregon, except for the coast and the Willamette Valley. With rains not heavy enough to overcome persistent dry conditions, 2015 is likely to be the third straight year of drought in southern parts of the state, she said.
Warm temperatures in the western half of the state have left current snowpack measurements low: 16 percent of normal for the Willamette Valley, 28 percent for central Oregon, 18 percent for the Rogue-Umpqua region, and 17 percent for the Klamath Basin. Things are better in eastern Oregon, where temperatures have been colder. Snowpacks ranged from 47 percent in the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Willow basins, to 79 percent in the Harney and Owyhee basins.
Precipitation throughout Oregon has been normal or near normal since the Oct. 1 start of the water year, despite a dry January, according to the service.
The major dams operated by the Army Corps of Engineers in the Willamette Basin generally do not start filling until the beginning of February, said corps spokesman Scott Clemans. Overall, they are 5 percent full. In the Rogue Basin, dams are 44 percent full. Lost Creek Dam is filling, but Applegate is not.
Clemans said in recent years, heavy rains have arrived in late spring in time to fill reservoirs.