Lack of adequate snowpack raises concerns concerns

By Observer Upload April 15, 2010 02:25 pm

Mother Nature is giving us reasons to smile and frown, and it may seem counterintuitive to people seeking sunny days and warmer temperatures with the arrival of spring.

Blame El Nino. The warming trend of water in the eastern Pacific Ocean has led to a drier than normal January and February and a wetter than normal March and April in Northeast Oregon. That means reduced snowpack, and snowpack is the lifeblood of the Rocky Mountain West.

At the moment, the Wallowa and Blue mountains snowpack has agriculture frowning, and for good reason. The snowpack for the Grande Ronde Basin ended March at about 75 percent of normal. The wet start to April, however, has added to the snowpack. The last snowpack survey of the season will be taken at the end of April, and it will be interesting to see if that gives us better final figures heading into the dry season ahead. Mountain snowpacks often reach their season maximum during April.

The problem boils down to a simple equation. The relatively dry winter and modest snowpack may have difficulty supplying agriculture with the water it needs this summer. A melting snowpack provides a summer peak for stream flow and fills the needs of irrigators.

A dependable water supply is vital to all sorts of things, from fish passage to agriculture. Union County farms and ranches produce more than $70 million of agricultural and farm forest commodities each year. The diverse agriculture practiced locally — peppermint oil, Kentucky bluegrass for seed, certified seed potatoes and much more — helps stabilize the economy for the region, and in a recession that is critical.

Rain and snowpack reduce demand on underground water sources. That’s important, since irrigation has the potential to deplete water reserves. Because spring runoff is so important for agriculture and municipal water systems, here’s hoping April brings a silver lining with its many rain clouds.