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Still below average

The snowpack is four times thicker than last year’s, but it’s lagging compared to averages

December 31, 2005

Jon Lea reaches high on the Standard Federal Snow Sampler and thrusts it into the snow.

As it disappears under his feet, he leans over the long aluminum pole and gives it one last oomph.

He then pulls it out.

The pole is now holding snow and dirt, a combination that will tell the hydrologist from the Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service just how much water Hood River County has in its snow bank.

“58.25,” he says to his assistant Bill Oberman. “52.5.”

The first number he calls out tells him how much snow is on the ground.

The second – 52.5 – will tell him how much water is in the snow. “One ounce of water in the tube equals one inch of snow on the ground,” he explains.

These figures represent the last of four samples he’s taken from the Mount Hood Test Site on this morning of Dec. 29.

This test site, one of about 40 in Oregon and Washington, consists of a small shed, an 18-foot rain gauge and a few poles protruding from this egg-shaped opening in the trees, 50 feet from one of Timberline’s groomed ski trails.

Lea thumbs the numbers from the four readings into his calculator and presses the equals button.

The snow depth is 63 inches, he says. Its water density is 36 percent.

And snowwater, a measure of water content within the snow, is 22.5 inches. Seventy-eight percent of average. Twice as much as the aluminum pole showed at the end of November. By midnight of Dec. 30, snowwater accumulation had improved to 86 percent of average.

“It’s early in the season still,” he says. “Lots can still happen. But it’s a good start.”

By last year’s standards, it’s a great start. At this time in 2004, Lea’s snowwater measurements came up to just 20 percent of average, a number that plummeted drastically in mid-January 2005 with a vicious warm front.

December is an important month for accumulation. It’s the month by which 40 percent of the year’s snowwater should have accumulated, according to 30-year averages from 1971 to 2000.

And this December hasn’t exactly been prolific.

It began with two weeks of cold and dry temperatures, followed by a few days of freezing rain.

December’s weather progressed with more than a week of warmer temperatures and precipitation, which produced 11 inches of rain, 64 percent of normal.

“We had a real good November,” Lea says. “It produced lots of rain and snow. December was cold, but it didn’t produce precipitation and when it did, it was warm so it came down as rain.”

That rain wasn’t necessarily a waste and didn’t necessarily waste the existing snowpack.

The snowpack is a little denser than normal because of it, Lea says.

And much of the water that doubled the flow of the Hood River – from 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to nearly 4,000 cfs in one day – was from two sources, Lea said: Lower elevation snow melt, that is snow lying at 2,500 feet or lower.

Or from rain that penetrated the higher elevation snowpack and drained underneath it.

In either case, Lea said, very little higher elevation snow melted in the last week.

December’s early dry spell and late rainfall didn’t dampen the skiing enthusiasm that mounted this November with abundant snowfall and promise of a better-than-normal ski season.

More snow fell at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Area in November than in December – 95 inches compared to 86 – and its base increased just 21 inches through Dec. 30 – from 59 to 80.

Still, Mt. Hood Meadows recorded 100,000 ski visits in December, 27,000 better than its five-year average for that month and twice as many as it recorded in November. The 48,000 November ski visit was nearly a record.

“The economy is better in Portland,” said Dave Riley, vice president and general manager of Mt. Hood Meadows. “A lot of people are making up for last year. And people really like the new lift (Vista Express).”

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