Storms bring good start to water year

Nov. 1—A storm that dumped heavy rain and snow on southwest Oregon Tuesday is a promising start to an upcoming snow season that water-watchers hope will cure the region's systemic reservoir woes.

While another "atmospheric river" event is expected to drop even more rain and as much as another foot of snow at high elevations, hydrologists warn it's too early to call these events harbingers of a good snow year.

"It's a little bit of optimism, but caution is very warranted," said Matt Warbritton, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Oregon snow survey program. "To look at it further is pretty much a guessing game."

The NRCS has yet to provide preseason water and snowpack forecasts for the upcoming season, which is starting with La Nina conditions that can lead statistically to either wet or dry conditions in southwest Oregon, records show.

Moderate to strong La Nina conditions often lead to some of the region's wetter winters, but the current one is labeled as weak, said meteorologist Ryan Sandler from the National Weather Service in Medford.

"The weaker ones are all over the board," Sandler said. "You just can't determine what the winter will look like from early storms. Things can change in a hurry."

However, what early storms do is create early saturation of parched soils that allows future rains to turn into runoff into area reservoirs and snow to fall on frozen ground unlikely to sop up spring runoff.

"It's good to get storms early like this," Sandler said.

No one is crossing their fingers harder than Talent Irrigation District Manager Wanda Derry, who hopes TID's three-headed reservoir system can store enough water for a full irrigation season — which has eluded it for three seasons.

TID limped into the 2021 irrigation season with the lowest water levels ever logged at Emigrant, Hyatt and Howard Prairie reservoirs that feed it.

The combined levels in the three reservoirs currently are 1,949 acre-feet higher than last year at this time, Derry said. However, the reservoirs' surface levels all remain exceedingly low.

Emigrant Lake was listed Tuesday at 4% full while Hyatt was at 2% and Howard Prairie was listed at 6% full, according to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Derry said seeing these projects full of water is probably "a couple (or) three years away," but seeing TID start the spring with reservoirs at 40% to 50% of full would go a long way toward a full irrigation season.

"That's much better than what we've seen lately," Derry said. "But we really just don't know what's coming."

The stakes are huge at Howard Prairie for the Jackson County Parks Department, which needs the reservoir to rise another 20 feet to float docks at its new marina.

Tuesday's surface level at Howard Prairie was 4,480 feet above sea level. At 4,500 feet above sea level, the lower docks and upper docks at the new-look Howard Prairie Resort Marina would be afloat and usable, said Jackson County Parks Manager Steve Lambert.

The marina's pilings were all sunk while water levels were far away from the marina site, officials said. The new docks are set to float this spring — if water levels cooperate.

The marina has been high and dry the past five years, but Lambert is optimistic that 2023 will float some boats at this popular reservoir east of Ashland.

"You never know," Lambert said Tuesday. "It's totally up to Mother Nature."

Nature is at least providing a potentially helpful preamble this week with the two wet storms soaking the region.

The Medford airport logged two-thirds of an inch of rain over a 24-hour period starting Monday evening, according to the weather service. Snow levels dropped to 2,000 feet above sea level, allowing for a thick dusting of snow on Roxy Ann Peak.

The second front is set for Saturday and Sunday, with forecasts of up to a foot of snow at higher elevations in the mountains and sturdy rains at lower elevations, according to the NRCS.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or