ENTERPRISE — Snowfall seems paltry this winter. The Wallowa Valley is floored by grass and mud, with ice lurking in the shadows. Chief Joseph Mountain’s face seems oddly barren.
But the high Wallowa Mountains and other ranges in Northeastern Oregon are holding more snow than it seems, as they are at about 90% of a normal snowpack depth so far this winter, according to measurements at the Natural Resources Conservation SNOTEL sites.
Generally, there’s very little snow below 4,000 feet anywhere in Northeastern Oregon, said Pendleton’s National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Cloutier.
“There’s been a lot of storminess, but its been pretty warm at the lower elevations,” he said. “In the Blues, it’s been mostly lower-elevation rain with higher-elevation snow.”
That’s a concern for summer streamflow and irrigation, said Scott Oviatt, NRCS snow survey supervisor.
“The lack of lower-elevation snowpack isn’t going to help summer water supplies,” he said. “We should be getting ready for possible shortages.”
The NRCS automated SNOTEL site atop Mount Howard showed a total of 20 inches of snow on the ground as of Sunday, Jan. 31. That’s 91% of the 1981-2010 average, according to NRCS data. That’s a considerable improvement over the snowpack as of Jan. 1, which was only 55% of the 30-year average. (Aneroid Lake’s SNOTEL site is not reporting presently.)
However, the actual amount of water that’s held in the snowpack at the Mount Howard site is significantly less than normal. Although the depth of snow there is 91% of the 30-year average, it contains only 61% of the 30-year median snow-water equivalent.
The other SNOTEL sites in the Wallowas report snow depths generally the range of 80-100% of the 30-year average. They include Moss Springs, which sheds into the Minam River, at 84% and Schneider Meadows, at the headwaters of Pine Creek, which runs into the Snake River, at 97%.
As the La Nina conditions this winter continue, February will bring near-normal temperatures and precipitation to Northeastern Oregon, according to Oregon Department of Agriculture meteorologist Pete Parsons.
“We’re not expecting any bitterly cold weather,” he said. “Temperatures might even be a little above average as you go toward the east.”
His Northeast Oregon forecast for March and April calls for temperatures about 2-3 degrees below normal and slightly below normal precipitation.
“I do not expect an early melt-off of the snowpack,” Parsons said. “And in a La Nina year like this, it’s likely that the northern half of the state will be wetter and the southern half will be drier. We’re right on the borderline between cold upper-level air to the north, and warmer upper-level air to the south. That borderline is where all the storms are, and the storm track is going to be cutting right into us. So we can expect a fair amount of storminess. That’s how things tend to play out during a La Nina.
But La Nina will not last much longer, Cloutier said.
“La Nina is supposed to diminish in March and April,” he said. “So we can see some return to drier and warmer conditions in the spring, especially May and June.”