How much water is in that snow?


Last updated 4/16/2024 at 9:27am

Photo by Bill Bartlett

Snowpack is vital to irrigation in Sisters' farm and ranch country as spring and summer are on the horizon.

Looking at the horizon one sees plenty of the white stuff on the Three Sisters, and Black Butte is showing a pretty white blanket. Ski Hoodoo and Bachelor are having excellent spring skiing. Typically by mid-April the ski resorts are icy in the morning and "mashed potatoes" by noon, frustrating skiers and boarders seeking to extend the season.

Not so this year. Afternoon temps have remained cool under a good deal of cloud cover. On Saturday, Hoodoo was sitting on 72 inches of snow, 235 inches for the year. Their last day will be April 28, no doubt with enough snow to continue, but customers will thin out as they switch over to bikes, golf, and pickleball.

"I can't remember when April was this good," said Cliff Lamont who took his three kids out of school Friday for a spring fling. "It's magical," said his wife, Clara, who knitted in the lodge while the family roamed the uncrowded mountain.

Meanwhile up at the Three Creek measuring station, the snow depth was 22 inches. The far more important reading of Snow Water Equivalent stood at 9.7 inches. Last year the numbers were 54 and 16.9 comparatively.

It's a different story just the other side of the pass where the McKenzie station has a healthy 109 percent of median snow water equivalent.

Contradicting the snow pack reports are the readings at area reservoirs where for the first time in years Prineville Reservoir is virtually full at 99 percent. But river flows are slow, at least until there is more runoff. Our Whychus Creek, small in volume but big in importance to area ranchers, was flowing at 51 CFS (cubic feet second) Saturday versus its 83-year average for April 13 of 69 CFS.

Reports of well failures in Sisters Country continue - nearly all to the east and north of town. Wells dug to 350-plus feet are running dry and replacement wells are needing another 50 to 100 feet or more to find water.

Aiken Well Drilling says they are getting 10 to 20 calls a week about well failures, although some are pump issues and not dry wells.

A new well, depending on location, can cost as much as $50,000, and some property owners in Sisters Country drilled 800 feet to reach water.

Are conservation efforts leading to well failure?

About 86 percent of the Deschutes Basin has historically been diverted to canals crisscrossing 150,000 acres of farmland. Large amounts of that water flowing in open air ditches was lost to evaporation. Systematically water districts have been enclosing the canals and piping the water or lining the canals to prevent seepage.

In so doing, millions and millions of gallons of water are no longer leaking into the ground eventually finding its way into the aquifer.

Up to 50 percent of water from canals seeped into the ground before it reached farms, potentially keeping the aquifers artificially high, according to the Oregon Water Resource Department's watermaster for the region, Jeremy Giffin, who's charged with regulating and distributing water from the state.

USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) estimates more than a 15-percent groundwater loss from Sisters to Powell Butte since 2008.

The reasons for water shortage worries are many. After three years of historic drought in 2020-2022, 2023 saw some relief. At the same time the area's population increased. Central Oregon remains the fastest growing region of the state, which overall lost population in 2023.

Redmond, now at 38,000, projects they could be out of water by 2040. Bend's population has basically doubled in 20 short years.

Water managers at the City of Sisters express no such concerns. Four deep wells are forecast to meet the City's needs far into the future.

Beyond the city limits, farmers and ranchers face an uncertain water year. Pivot sprayers and sidelines (water wheels) around Sisters are getting tuned up and any day will get turned on. Agriculture in Sisters Country is a multi-million industry - dependent on water.

Situated east of the Cascade foothills in an area running northeast from Whychus Creek, through the Cloverdale area, and down McKenzie Canyon to Lower Bridge, the Three Sisters Irrigation District provides irrigation water to the 7,572 acres of certified water rights appurtenant to land owned by farming and ranching interests located within its boundaries.


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