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Snowpack not out of the ordinary - yet

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Data from SNOTEL sites on Jan. 4 show snow levels are similar to last year, but reservoir levels are higher this year


After facing a high amount of snowfall during the past month, one might assume that the mountain snowpack is looking stronger than usual.

As it turns out, that is not necessarily the case, although not all data has yet been collected and the outlook could change as the winter progresses.

"At the end of December, we go up and visit the Marks Creek snow course, which is right along Highway 26 where you head over to Ochoco Summit," said Russ Rhoden, Ochoco Irrigation District Manager. "That is the only one we do in December. At the end of January, we actually go to all three (snow courses)."

Rhoden explained that OID gets its snowpack data from three SNOTEL sites, one of which is the Marks Creek location. The other two are the Derr SNOTEL, just east of Mitchell, and the Ochoco SNOTEL site, near Walton Lake.

"We watch those daily and get information on what the snowpack is doing," Rhoden said.

Snow courses, by contrast, are comprised of the area immediately surrounding the SNOTEL site. Those sites require a visit to gather data.

"It gives us an overall picture of what's on the ground there," Rhoden said.

While the snow course visits won't take place until later this month, data collected from the SNOTEL sites shows that the snowpack and its water content is about the same as the prior winter at this point in time.

As of Jan. 4, at the Derr site near Mitchell, the snow depth was 29 inches with a water content of 7.2 inches, Rhoden said. However, last year on the same day, snow depth at that location was 41 inches with a water content of 11.3 inches.

The difference is not as extreme at the Ochoco SNOTEL site. Snow depth on Jan. 4 of this year is 29 inches with a water content of 6.6 inches, while last year's snow depth was also 29 inches with a slightly higher 7.4 inches of water content.

Marks Creek has a current snow depth of 19 inches with 4.4 inches of water, which is less than the 22 inches of snow and 5.8 inches of water content from the prior year.

Rhoden has reached two conclusions from the data collected thus far. One, the snow that is falling in the mountains is a drier snow than usual. Two, snow is piling up more at lower elevations than it typically does.

"We might actually be getting hit a little harder in town than we are in the mountains," he said.

Snow has continued to accumulate in town since the latest SNOTEL readings, meaning snow depth in the mountains has likely followed suit. Crook County was hit with another 7 inches of snow on Saturday and is forecasted to receive up to 9 more inches on Tuesday.

Reservoir levels, meanwhile, already exceed those of last year at this time. Prineville Reservoir has 63,835 acre-feet of water currently, versus 51,606 acre-feet at this same time last year. Similarly, Ochoco Reservoir is at 19,980 acre-feet versus 11,057 acre-feet in early 2016.

"All in all, it looks really good," Rhoden said, adding that it will be interesting to see if the current pattern of heavy snow continues. "Some of our experience over the last few years is after the first of the year, it just goes flat … I think it is kind of wait and see."