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After strong season, snowpack sees early melt at Mt. Hood site

It’s the classic case of wait and see.

On Thursday, April 28, hydrologists with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service hiked to the Mt. Hood snow telemetry site, or SNOTEL, to measure the area’s peak season snowpack depth. Their findings confirmed the information SNOTEL had previouslyPOST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hydrologist Julie Koberle checks a tube she will drive into the snowpack to measure its depth and water content. transmitted — that it was a generally good year for snow on the mountain — but the data also create a gentle caution for the months to come. A warmer-than-average spring might mean flowers and shorts, but it also brings early snowmelt. And this season’s toasty temperatures seem to be doing just that.

“It has been an active snowmelt at that site,” said hydrologist Julie Koeberle.

Early snowmelt can cause ecological issues later on, as Koeberle explains that once the snow vanishes, the mountain soil and stream flow will rely entirely on air temperatures and precipitation to support them. Mountain runoff also feeds reservoirs, and provides drinking water for animals.

“Once it’s gone, it’s all about what happens with the weather,” she said.

Typically, the Mt. Hood SNOTEL site peaks around the end of April or early part of May, and holds 64 inches of snow-water content. This year’s peak, described as the highest point of the snow-accumulation season, took place on March 31, when there was 50.1 inches of snow-water content. That’s 78 percent of the normal peak amount.

On Thursday, the SNOTEL site revealed a 91 inch-deep snowpack, or roughly 7-and-a-half feet of snow containing 41.8 inches of snow-water content. A normal measurement for the same period would be 61 inches, or about five feet of water.

For now, the site is at about 69 percent of normal. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hydrologist Julie Koberle checks a tube she will drive into the snowpack to measure its depth and water content.

Peaking so early in the season means the site has “lost a significant amount of snow,” Koeberle said. But there might be a reprieve, should cooler temperatures return. There have been some chillier days in the past few weeks, and on those days, the snowmelt has slowed.

“If we could continue to cool and off and keep what we have for a while, it will keep us on track for awhile,” she said. “It’s kind of a wait and see what happens this month.”

And although the declining snowpack may seem like a bit of bad news after a perfectly powdery winter season, Koeberle points out that this year’s findings are still a bright spot compared to last year’s data. At this time last year, the Mt. Hood SNOTEL site had hit a record low, she recalls, with only 18 inches of snow-water content — just 30 percent of normal — recorded.

This year’s data show the site has twice as much snow on the same date and the peak of the snow season was almost three times as much as last year’s peak.

She describes the 2015 peak as being “almost like a flat line.”

“Last year was just mind-blowing in terms of how little snow we had,” she said. “Some of the ski areas just didn’t open at all or only opened for a few days.”

Next, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologists will compile a water-supply outlook report based on findings from the state’s total snow survey results. That report is expected to be released this week.