What to expect after Oregon's wettest season since 1999

This season has been so wet that even the heartiest Oregonians have invested in umbrellas.

Two record-breaking months for rainfall — October and February — fueled what has been Oregon’s wettest season since 1999, according to hydrologists.

The rain started early and never let up, bringing floods, blizzards, and landslides. Multiple snowstorms shut down the Willamette Valley.

“There’s no single reason why this season has been so wet,” said Andy Bryant, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Portland. “Tropical storms have been feeding a pretty consistent amount of moisture into the jet stream, but overall, there’s just been a lot of activity over the Pacific.”

After a string of years that saw record-breaking heat, drought, and low snowpack, this winter helped the state recover almost entirely. For the first time since 2011, Oregon is expected to enter the summer completely free of drought or dryness.

“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other,” Bryant said. “A few years ago we had historic, widespread drought. Now it’s these big pulses of rain, snow, and flooding. It’s very unusual.”

For the current water year, which starts on Oct. 1, Oregon’s precipitation is 132 percent of normal, the highest in early April in almost two decades. Mountain snowpack isn’t far behind at 125 percent of normal, the highest since 2012.

That’s good news for fish, wildlife and reducing the threat of wildfire, and ski areas are counting their money and planning to stay open into May.  But not all the news is positive. Farmers are up to a month behind in their planting. Detroit Lake still needs spring rain to completely fill. Home gardeners have more moss and slugs invading their plots.

Here’s a look at how the rainiest year in almost two decades is impacting Salem, the Willamette Valley and the state at large.

Fewer wildfires (maybe)

There’s no perfect correlation between a wet and snowy year and fewer wildfires. After all, dry lightning strikes and summer temperatures play the biggest role, experts said.

But a healthy snowpack should improve chances of a less severe wildfire season, National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto said.

“Significant winter snowpack, on average, tends to delay fire season in the higher elevation areas,” she said. “It prolongs the drying of vegetation, meaning that it won't be susceptible to burning until it has had time to dry out, which, on average, doesn't occur until mid- to late-summer.”

Last year, wildfires torched 186,317 acres, the lowest total since 2010 and well below the 10-year average. In 2015, one of the worst years for drought in Oregon’s history, 685,809 acres burned; in 2014, another drought year, 984,629 acres burned.

Oddly enough, the worst year for wildfire in recent history was 2012, when 1.2 million acres burned. That came during a period of normal to above normal rain and snowpack in Oregon.

Will Detroit Lake actually fill?

Despite the historically rainy season, Detroit Lake will still need close-to-normal rainfall during the spring to reach its full summertime level of 1,563.5 feet.

Currently, the reservoir sits at 1,545 feet. That’s just a few feet higher than normal for this time of year.

“Right now we’re pretty optimistic we’re going to fill,” said Salina Hart, chief of reservoir regulation and water quality section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But it all comes down to spring rain.”

The Corps releases most of the water during the rainy season to ensure it has enough space to absorb a “100 year storm event” — a flood such as those seen in 1964 and 1996 — and limit damage to the Willamette Valley.

The reservoir gradually begins storing water starting Feb. 1 following a “rule curve.” That curve — the subject of controversy in recent years — means the reservoir is heavily dependent on spring rainfall to fill. Last spring didn’t bring quite enough rain to keep the reservoir full through the summer. In 2015, the reservoir hit its lowest level in history.

“It can be a tricky time, when the weather is transitioning,” Hart said. “We’re hoping we get close to normal rain. We want to have a good year.”

Best ski season in a decade

During the worst of the drought, in the winter of 2014-15, there were questions whether ski areas would even survive in Oregon. For two years in a row, some ski areas didn’t open because of a lack of snow. Others opened for just a handful of days.

That changed in a big way this season. Mount Hood ski areas saw more visitors than at any time in the past decade. Mount Bachelor had its third-snowiest winter on record.

Hoodoo Ski Area, on Santiam Pass east of Salem, had its longest operating season since 2012.

“This year we seemed to be firing on all cylinders,” said Leif Williams, vice president of marketing for Hoodoo. “The only thing that stopped people from coming was an avalanche on Highway 20.”

Each of the ski areas are promoting spring skiing, and Mount Hood Meadows plans to stay open until early May.

Late start to hiking season, more mosquitoes?

For those who love hiking in the mountains, a heavy snowpack is something of a mixed blessing.

It often means fewer wildfires and a healthier water supply, which means fresher air and cleaner lakes and rivers. But it also means a later start to the season, with snow often blocking roads and trails into the high country well into June and even July.

This year’s heavy snowpack means it could take longer to get into famous backpacking destinations in the Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters areas.

There’s also a correlation between more snowpack bringing more mosquitoes, but that can depend on several factors, including temperature.

Wet farming

Bruce Ruddenklau's boots sink into the muddied soil of his Amity farm, where winter wheat is yellowed and peeking just 4 inches from the watery, eroded earth.

In a normal year, winter wheat would have stretched to 8 inches by April — but Ruddenklau did not farm under normal conditions.

He joins other farmers in the Mid-Willamette Valley that are still battling wet conditions that led to soil erosion and oversaturation of crops .

Helle Ruddenklau and Bruce Ruddenklau, wife and husband farmers based in Amity, said roughly 20 percent of their 1,000 acres of crops were affected by excessive rain and winter frosts.

"It's been probably the worst winter that I've been through since we started," Bruce Ruddenklau said.

The pair bought their Amity land in 1992 when they were both 23 years old.

They now operate four farms including their home Amity land and three other farms in Sheridan and Dallas. They grow perennial ryegrass, winter wheat, meadow foam seed, radish seed and sugar beet seed.

In October, when perennial ryegrass is typically planted as an Autumn crop, the pair were met with between 11 and 13 inches of rain - and the rain did not let up.

Bruce Ruddenklau said ryegrass was planted in oversaturated soil, and some of their crops rotted in the ground and didn't germinate and grow.

"I'm looking at crops that are at a stage of growth that would be in line with March more than April," Bruce Ruddenklau said. "We're between two weeks and a month behind what we consider to be normal."

In some areas, their winter wheat crops are roughly 8 inches tall, and in excessively wet areas of their land, the same crops are roughly 4 inches tall.

"Wheat likes well-drained areas, but the wheat has seen a significant loss due to wet soil," Bruce Ruddenklau said.

Springtime promises a slow rise in temperatures and drier weather, which Bruce Ruddenklau said will be a welcome sight after sloshing through muddy crops and trying to keep gray garden slugs at bay.

"From here on out if we have normal conditions then we stand to do OK, but there may be some yield losses," Bruce Ruddenklau said. "I'm optimistic - you have to be as a farmer."

For other crops, this year may be little more than an annoyance for farmers.

"Last year was the earliest we've ever seen strawberries and cane berries (vine berries like blackberries)," Marion County Farm Bureau President John Zielinski said. "Now, I think things will be at least two weeks behind last year, which will put them more in the historical average."

But we're not out of the clouds yet, Zielinski said. The rain may have an effect on flavor or quality of berries if it continues into the spring, which could tamper with the actual development of the fruit. Still, he says, that's pretty unlikely.

"If we have a fairly normal summer, I don't anticipate it to affect the flavor of the produce or the quality of the produce," Zielinski said. "If it rains a lot, there could be issues with berries. ... There can be mold issues, flavor issues."

We may see a shortage outside of the produce aisle, but it won't be for several years: Zielinski said some Christmas tree farmers may struggle with this year's seedlings. Christmas tree farmers couldn't cut the seedlings during the normal harvest period in January and February, which means the trees may not survive a replanting.

Still, shoppers won't see a shortage for another four to eight years.

Gardening

A winter of heavy rainfall has left Salem gardens soggy and mossy.

Neil Bell of Oregon State University Extension Service said our gardens have been pummeled this winter, leaving beds condensed and wet. This most affects planting seeds this spring, such as in vegetable gardens.

“Compaction will make it hard for seeds to germinate and push through the surface,” Bell said.

Statesman Journal garden columnist Carol Savonen said this is especially true with clay soil, which stays wet longer.

"If people are eager to get going, dig in the soil," Comunity Horticulturist Weston Miller of the extension service said. "If the soil is sticking to the shovel, it's too wet."

But a dry day or two can be taken advantage of.

Gardeners can gently spade up the soil and add some compost to help even out the wet, compacted soil.

And because rains likely will continue through spring, cold frames or cloches as simple as cut-up milk jugs can help protect new seedlings, Savonen said.

An inexpensive soil thermometer helps keep planting time in perspective. Fifty degrees is a good benchmark for cool-season crops such as carrots, beets and greens, Miller said, or 60 to 70 degrees for warm-weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and basil. He cautions that like the flowering trees, everything is a couple weeks behind schedule, and that might continue through the season with edible and flower gardens.

There are a few nice things about a soggy ground that should be taken advantage of this time of year. Weeds, which will go gangbusters this year as the ground warms, let go of the earth much easier when the ground is soft, especially those with deep roots such as dandelions. Spring rains also are helpful for newly planted trees and shrubs trying to get established.

Another good thing about this year's weather is more due to the hard freezes than the rain.

"The hope is the development of pests will be delayed this year," Miller said, specifically mentioning leaf miners, flea beetles and aphids, "but it's too early to tell."

Heavy rainfall this year also means slugs and moss are living it up.

For moss, Miller doesn't recommend products like Moss Out, which he said don't work and are unnecessary. He suggested scraping moss out of lawns by hand with a rake, roughing up that soil and adding grass seed, mulch and fertilizer. It's also important, Miller said, to get outside when the weather allows and mow the lawn. Spring lawns are growing quickly, and guidelines suggest not removing more than a third of the height of a lawn.

If you want to protect your soil better next year, consider a cover crop or covering the ground with leaves.

"A cover crop will protect your soil from pummeling raindrops," Savonen said. "The roots of cover crops will make your soil more aerated as well."

The Statesman Journal's Lauren Hernandez, Brooke Jackson-Glidden and Heather Rayhorn contributed to this story.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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