Snowpack woefully below average; will today's storm help?

Winter sports fans and the local industries that cater to them are hoping this cold and wet storm that moved into Southern Oregon today jump-starts a lagging snowpack that has skiers and snowmobilers idle.

The arctic front that brought record lows Thursday to Medford and picked up moisture from the Pacific was expected to dump up to 8 inches of snow in the mountains before it was done.

And what falls is expected to stick — a rarity so far in a season lagging considerably below average in early snowpack.

"This is the right kind of storm," said Kim Clark, general manager at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, which has yet to open. "This is just the way we like to see it."

With its average opening day of Dec. 11 right around the corner, Mt. Ashland had 4 inches of snow at the top and in the shadows heading into today's storm.

Clark says the ski area needs anywhere from 18 inches to perhaps as much as 40 inches to groom the runs for opening, depending upon the type of snow and wind conditions.

"There is no magic number," Clark said. "What we need is adequate, dense-enough snow to be able to pack."

At Diamond Lake, the magic number is a firm 2 feet of snow — the depth required by the Umpqua National Forest before the snowmobile trails can be groomed.

Only about an inch of snow dusted the ground Thursday around Diamond Lake, said the resort's Rick Rockholt.

"We're still a way's out and waiting on this next storm," Rockholt said. "We're in limbo right now."

At nearly 5,200 feet above sea level, the lake's surface now sports a sheet of thin ice triggered by nighttime temperatures recently hovering around 0 degrees.

"When it's cold, it historically doesn't snow that much here," Rockholt said. "The air's too dry.

"It's got to warm up a little bit before we get a good snow."

Any good snow has been an anomaly across most of Oregon heading into the 2013-14 winter.

Snow surveys conducted electronically Thursday by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service show the Rogue and Umpqua river basins with a snowpack of just 28 percent of average for that day. Many of the region's so-called SNOTEL electronic measuring sites list snowpacks of less than 1 inch.

The Klamath Basin's snowpack was listed Thursday at 25 percent of average, while the Willamette Basin was listed at 27 percent of average.

The best snowpack, in terms of percentage of average, was in far northeastern Oregon basins, where snowpacks had percentile measurements Thursday in the low 80s.

The Rogue and Umpqua basins collectively were listed at so far garnering 39 percent of average precipitation for the water year, which begins Sept. 1, according to the NRCS.

The numbers are not so low at the Medford airport, which is one of the drier niches in the Rogue Valley.

Rainfall there since Sept. 1 was 4.22 inches, an inch under average, according to the National Weather Service.

Last year, a cold and wet storm front like today's blew through Southern Oregon and dropped 2 feet of snow on Mt. Ashland, and all the ski area runs opened within a week, Clark said. But that storm didn't come until mid-January.

"Things can change quickly," Clark said.

— Mark Freeman

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