Snowpack Vanishes as Drought Continues

The drought that has kept Oregon firmly in its grip throughout the first part of 2015 shows no signs of slowing. Our state’s snowpack has already disappeared, far ahead of schedule, with no snow of any kind reported since early June. Snow can only be found at the highest elevations of Mount St. Helens; the SNOTEL snow-density monitoring station on Mt. Hood is completely bare.

A Vicious Cycle

The same drought that brought so little snow over the winter is exacerbated by itself as summer goes on. “Without that snow, the soils are dryer and the water isn’t filtering down into the streams,” said US Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist Julie Koeberle. The result: historically low streamflows in the Clackamas River and others that will only get lower.

Even where water is plentiful, fish are still in danger. In the Willamette River, fish are dying of heat stress. On the Umpqua, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has restricted fishing near tributaries to protect fish as they congregate in the cooler waters there for relief. Detroit Lake is 60 feet lower than its usual depth this time of season, with boat docks and tree stumps extending several feet above the waterline.

Detroit Lake at its all-time low during the drought of 1973.

Detroit Lake at its all-time low during the drought of 1973.

Scott Clemans, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers, said, “Detroit is a reservoir we try and hold as high as we can, as long as we can during summer. It usually fills in early May. This year, we never filled.” The Corps of Engineers operates the dam at Detroit Lake.

Desperately Dry… And Oppressively Hot

The record-shattering heat cities in the Willamette Valley have experienced lately isn’t helping matters. Last month set records for the hottest and driest June in history, and Governor Kate Brown has declared drought-related emergencies in 20 counties. Farmers, ranchers, and forest owners in these counties are now eligible for federal aid, but the money might not last.

The National Resources Conservation Service has a $2.5 million emergency budget for Oregon, but, according to Loren Unruh, the NRCS’ state program leader, says the agency has already received over 300 requests for aid. Unruh estimates that these aid requests will top the available funds by almost $500,000. “We’re going to need to request more,” Unruh said.

Unfortunately, probably the only hope for relief is rainfall, and lots of it. But, now that we’ve entered what are traditionally the hottest and driest months of the year, the chances of receiving enough precipitation to turn the drought around are slim to none. Climatologists are already forecasting below-average rainfall for July; long term projections, though less reliable, tell a similar story.

At least it’s a dry heat…

Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives / Foter / No known copyright restrictions