Snow level is better, still low

There is good news and bad news for those who keep an eye on the mountain snowpack to gauge the coming summer water flows.

There is considerably more snow — 60 percent of average — on Mount Ashland and Siskiyou Summit now than at the end of a drought-like December, yet the totals still are well below normal for this time of year.

The all-important water content — the amount of water contained in the snow — is 63 percent of average on the four Siskiyou Mountains sites and 59 percent for the mountains ringing the Rogue/Umpqua basins.

"But it's not too late to catch up, get close to average or even surpass it," said snow ranger Steve Johnson after skiing in to take the Siskiyou Mountains measurements on Monday.

"I always have hope, even after a slow start like this — it has happened more than once," said Johnson, who has been taking the snow measurement in the Siskiyou Mountains District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for more than 22 seasons.

The winter snowpack is an important indicator for the coming water year, providing a frozen bank of water for summer stream flows and reservoir storage.

The U.S. Forest Service works with the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service in measuring the snow survey sites throughout Oregon. In the Siskiyous, the survey is taken at the end of each month from December through April. Only the Siskiyou Summit site is measured at the end of December.

In addition to physically taking measurements, the agencies rely on remote SNOTEL (snow telemetry) measuring devices to determine the snow-water content.

Typically, about 40 percent of Oregon's mountain snowpack is on the ground by Jan. 1, according to the NRCS.

At the Siskiyou Summit site — a few miles west of the Interstate 5 crossing that goes by the same name — Johnson found 17 inches of snow for 81 percent of average while the water content was 5.6 inches, or 95 percent of normal. The summit is 4,600 feet above sea level.

"I was pleasantly surprised at how much was on the summit," said Johnson who found no snow at the site at the end of December. "The mid-January storm really dumped up there."

Farther up Mount Ashland, the snow ranger found 33 inches of snow with 10 inches of snow-water content at the Ski Bowl Pass, elevation 6,000 feet. Both snow depth and snow water was 61 percent of normal.

The Mount Ashland Switchback site had 34 inches of snow for 52 percent of normal with 58 percent of snow water with 11.9 inches. That site is 6,500 feet above sea level.

And Caliban II, also located at 6,500 feet, has 36 inches of snow for 59 percent of normal. The snow-water measurement was 11.6 inches, also for 59 percent of normal.

Down on the valley floor, the National Weather Service station at the Medford airport reports 6.19 inches of precipitation has fallen since the water year began Sept. 1. The average precipitation for the water year through the end of January is nearly 11 inches.

The January rainfall as of Monday morning was 2.6 inches, slightly above the average of 2.3 inches at the airport, the service reported. But the forecast calls for precious little precipitation in the coming week, aside for some rain in mid-week.

Yet Johnson observed that last January through mid-February was dry, followed by an unusual amount of late winter and spring snowfall in the mountains.

"We are drier today on this date, compared to last year overall," he said, then added, "But it is still possible to make up for it."

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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