Though snow on the ground means it’s winter in the Klamath Basin, the outlook remains uncertain for water users in 2013.

“We’re planning for a water shortage,” said Hollie Cannon, executive director of the Klamath Water and Power Agency. “The lake bottomed out in October to its lowest level in 18 years. And hydrologic trends have been drier than normal the last 10 years.”

Upper Klamath Lake is filled to just 60 percent of the average for this time of year at 146,000 acre-feet, according to the Oregon Snow Survey Program of the National Resources Conservation Service. An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre with water at a depth of one foot.

Snow Survey hydrologist Julie Koeberle said 523,000 acre-feet constitutes a full Upper Klamath Lake. Another way of quantifying this is an average elevation of 4,143.3 feet above sea level, according to Cannon.

In comparison, Upper Klamath Lake had an average elevation of 4,139.59 feet on Dec. 17, 3.71 feet below the fill mark.

Nearly 30 miles long and up to eight miles wide, any difference in lake elevation means significant differences in the amount of water in the lake.

The importance of snow

Winter snowpack, which impacts water availability for next year’s irrigation season, sits at 86 percent of the average for this time of the year, Koeberle said.

Deeper snowpacks are currently found near Crater Lake and further west near the Cascades, she added, whereas southern and eastern sections of the Basin have seen much less.

“It’s been one of the wettest falls on record for parts of Oregon,” said Koeberle, though she noted that it’s been drier in areas surrounding Upper Klamath Lake, which provides the majority of regional agricultural water.

Due to low lake levels, winter snowfall is critical. And besides the amount of snow received, Koeberle pointed to another important variable — its water content.

Snowpacks in the Cascade Range are typically wetter and deeper. Cold weather in the Klamath Basin lends itself to snowpack that is more shallow and contains less water. Dry, fluffy snow might be good for skiing, Koeberle said, but is bad for filling reservoirs.

The Snow Water Equivalent represents the depth of water in the snowpack, if the snowpack were melted. Currently, Oregon Snow Survey data shows the Klamath Basin is 13 percent below average for water content.

Oregon Water Resources Department’s district 17 watermaster Scott White commented that it’s exciting to see snow on the ground now but it would have been nice to see it come earlier. “Not that I’m complaining,” White said. “The more snow the better — the longer it sticks around, the better for water users.”

More snow and more irrigation water are also better for White professionally, he said, because he won’t have to regulate as early.

Next year will be the first adjudicated water season in the Klamath Basin. Adjudication, which has been ongoing since 1975, will tell water users whose water rights are senior and whose are junior, based on the priority date of their claim.

White said, “It appears the writing’s on the wall and (adjudication) is really going to happen. Since the final order comes out before next irrigation season, a good winter would buy us time.”