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The Frozen Reservoir

By Spencer Miller

Drought designations in Oregon on March 31, 2015. Via Drought Monitor

Drought designations in Oregon on March 31, 2015. Via Drought Monitor.

Drought designations in Oregon on March 28, 2017. Via Drought Monitor.

Drought designations in Oregon on March 28, 2017. Via Drought Monitor.

Julie speaks to reporters about the Oregon snowpack and future water availability. Photo by Spencer Miller, NRCS National Headquarters Public Affairs Specialist

Julie speaks to reporters about the Oregon snowpack and future water availability. Photo by Spencer Miller, NRCS National Headquarters Public Affairs Specialist

Hydrologists Julie Koeberle and Amy Burke weigh the snow. This lets them calculate the snow's water content. Photo by Tracy Robillard, NRCS Oregon Public Affairs Officer

Hydrologists Julie Koeberle and Amy Burke weigh the snow. This lets them calculate the snow’s water content. Photo by Tracy Robillard, NRCS Oregon Public Affairs Officer

On March 30, the snow was 11 feet deep. We parked near Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, waiting for the local media to arrive. Hydrologist Julie Koeberle sat in the cab, reviewing notes and snow maps to prepare for the coming interviews.

Fresh snow was falling fast, creating whiteout conditions and icy roads. A couple of news vans slid slowly past, their locked brakes struggling to catch. When our convoy was complete, we put on snow chains and drove down to the site.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) monitors snowpack year round. Most monitoring is remote via automated weather stations called SNOTEL sites. They transmit hourly reports of local conditions, including temperature, snow depth and water content.

A couple of times each year, Oregon hydrologists meet the press at Mt. Hood to manually measure the snow and answer questions about future water supply.

This time, turnout was good. Several local TV stations sent reporters to cover April’s snow survey. On the evening news, the message was one of recovery.

Just a few years ago, Oregon, like much of the West, was gripped by severe drought. Hot summers, mild winters and puny snowpacks were steadily increasing the pressure. Back then, the evening news was about contentious water rights, water restrictions and wildfires.

This year, the Mt. Hood basin holds 130 percent of the normal water content. Unless there is a rapid melt, irrigators and other water users aren’t likely to face a shortage. The same holds true in adjacent basins. Not a single county in Oregon currently bears a drought designation.

This surplus graces much of the West. The reversal in California was especially dramatic. Like in a Hollywood movie, heavy rains and snow swooped in, rescuing inhabitants from a punishing state-wide drought.


Relieved of the immediate threat, it’s tempting to resume business as usual. But it is important to recognize that weather is out of our control.

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help agricultural producers use water wisely as well as make other conservation improvements. Small changes, such as updating an old irrigation system, can make a big impact. Healthy soil retains water and resists drought. Cover crops keep the soil cool and moist on hot summer days.

Get started with NRCS and we can help you be ready for whatever comes.

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