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Warm weather accelerates snowpack melt

GRANTS PASS — Record warm temperatures have accelerated the melting of an already skimpy snowpack in most of Oregon, particularly in the south.

The Klamath Basin had the state’s lowest snowpack on Friday, just 18 percent of normal. The Willamette Basin is at 51 percent, Central Oregon at 50 percent. The northeastern corner of the state is best off, with basins around Enterprise and Baker City at 120 percent of normal, and basins around Pendleton 97 percent. Snow that accumulates over the winter and melts in the spring is a major source of water storage Oregon and the West.

“We are definitely going to end up with one of the lowest years on record,” said Julie Koeberle, hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that measures and predicts water resources. Only 40 percent of the automated snow measurement sites around the state still had snow, and only two had temperatures above freezing, she said. National Weather Service forecasts for storms moving through the state over the weekend would likely slow the melting with cooler temperatures, but not add to snow accumulations.

After a wet September, most of Oregon suffered through a dry winter, and increased precipitation in early spring could not make up the gap. The U.S. Drought Monitor showed extreme drought across the southern half of the state, with exceptional drought in southern Klamath and Harney counties.

Precipitation improved to the north, and Washington state had snowpacks near or above normal through the Cascades and across the eastern part of the state. The Olympic Peninsula was the low point for the state at 88 percent. The drought monitor showed severe drought to abnormally dry conditions persisting across Eastern Washington.

In the Klamath Basin, stream flows were expected to be a little less than last year, when irrigation was shut off to ranchers after the Klamath Tribes and downstream farmers invoked newly recognized senior water rights. Ranchers in the upper basin prepared for another year of irrigation cutbacks, but expected the economic impact to be less due to state and federal funding to start implementing a landmark water sharing agreement between ranchers and the Tribes.

“This greases the wheels to get the machine moving towards our goal,” of a sustainable agricultural economy, said rancher Becky Hyde.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is providing $4.5 million this year and $11 over five years for things like fencing cattle out of the rivers. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have put together $4 million to start paying ranchers to refrain from irrigating pasture to assure water for fish and downstream irrigators.

Farmers on the Klamath Reclamation Project straddling the Oregon-California border have been told water supplies are 39 percent below the amount needed for full irrigation.

In the Willamette Basin, rainfall was 94 percent of normal, despite the scant snowpack, and all reservoirs were on track to fill, said Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator for the Oregon Water Resources Department. Summer streamflows were forecast to be at or a little below normal.

In the high desert regions of southeastern Oregon, some small streams had gone dry in Harney County, and holders of senior water rights had begun calling for water to be shut off to holders of junior water rights on some streams in Malheur County. The Silvies River has been running low, prompting calls for regulation.

In Central Oregon, the Crooked River was flowing below average, prompting some holders of junior water rights on smaller tributaries to be told to stop irrigating.

In Southwestern Oregon, reservoir storage was 74 percent of normal, and snowpack was 30 percent of average in the Rogue and Umpqua basins. The region has not yet had any calls for water regulation, Rancier said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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