PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — This year’s abundant snowpack is quickly melting away in the spring sun, flushing Oregon’s rivers and streams with fresh water and replenishing the state’s previously parched reservoirs.
Depleted by years of “extreme” and “exceptional” drought, water supplies at reservoirs like Lake Owyhee in Malheur County have doubled and even tripled in volume in the past two months. Oregon state climatologist Larry O’Neill told KOIN 6 News that the recovery is largely thanks to the melting snow. Spring thunderstorms have also helped pump water into Oregon’s reservoirs in recent weeks.
“The snowpack was the key reason, in a broad sense, why reservoirs rebounded so well this spring,” O’Neill said. “In the case of the Owyhee, the rebound also was partly due to above-average precipitation within its upper watershed, particularly during March and April.”
KOIN 6 Meteorologist Kelley Bayern reports that the resurgence of fresh water has allowed many of Oregon’s reservoirs to reach or even exceed their average storage supply for the year. And with more snowpack left to melt, these levels are expected to grow.
“Reservoirs across the state are seeing a major turnaround compared to last year: Most are sitting at full capacity or close to it,” Bayern said. “This is likely due to a hearty winter season of snowfall in the Cascades. Snow continued to accumulate in the mountains through much of April with above-normal snowpack reported for all basins throughout the winter season.”
The healthy water supply is a relief for rural, agricultural areas in Central and Eastern Oregon, which have seen the worst of the state’s historic drought. The region’s dire lack of water prompted Governor Tina Kotek to declare multiple drought emergencies in 2023, citing huge economic impacts to Oregon’s farms, ranches, vineyards and other natural resources.
In addition to refilling reservoirs, this year’s ample precipitation has also helped to naturally quench Oregon’s agricultural fields, O’Neill said. As a result, farmers are using less water.
“Other good news is that recent well-above-normal precipitation means that irrigation demand is currently low, so [reservoirs] will fill faster than in the last few years,” O’Neill said. “The key point here is that its peak storage is still a few weeks away … and irrigation demand will likely be at normal levels through July downstream.”
Despite the recent surplus of water, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson Erika Lopez said that Oregon’s drought is ongoing and that another year of exceptional precipitation is likely needed for Central and Eastern Oregon to fully recover.
“Much of Oregon remains in some level of drought as classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor,” Lopez said. “For areas where elevation levels are lower, it will likely take an additional above-normal snowpack next season to fully recover from the multi-year drought conditions.”