Our low-snow winter means local economic problems

For farmers, dam operators, and others worried about low snowpack, the next couple of months are key.
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Where's the snow when you need it?

For farmers, dam operators, and others worried about low snowpack, the next couple of months are key.

The warmest January on record. El Niño winter. Lots of snow for the Olympics at Whistler, no snow for events near Vancouver. Alligators in the Duwamish. Daffodils blooming. What is going on here? As usual, our weather is a regular topic of conversation, especially in recent days as warm weather records fell. The record-breaking weather is significant, of course, but the real question for the region this winter — really any winter — is snowpack in the mountains.

And there the story is much more worrisome. Nice weather for us urbanites is great — we ride our bikes, walk around Green Lake, marvel at early crocus and daffodils and generally enjoy a winter without snow shovels, chains, delays and other problems. But the lack of snow in the mountains can mean rough times ahead for any number of people. Farmers in Eastern Washington are hit extra hard, but they are not the only ones who feel the economic impact of a dry year.

For example, the Bonneville Power Administration said Monday (Feb. 8) that because of reduced water supplies it has cut projected revenue from hydroelectric power it sells. Instead of a $232 million annual surplus, BPA now expects a $6 million loss.

Snow in the mountains creates a huge water 'ꀜbank'ꀝ that many parts of the state draw on as the year unfolds. Farmers and ranchers in the Yakima Valley depend on the snowpack for water to irrigate their crops while we urban dwellers use it for our daily needs into the dry days of July and August. The region has the reputation nationally as a rainy place, but that is really not true. New York gets more rain on average then we do. What we have are many gray, cloudy days that often produce a bit of rain, but the majority of the rain that falls here occurs from November to late February.

Cliff Mass, the UW atmospheric scientist, says winter really ends about the third week in February, when the chance for heavy rainstorms drops substantially.

So, where are we this year? The Basin Outlook Report by the National Resources Conservation Service is kind of the bible of snowpack. Its monthly report gives an update on snowpack, breaking it down by watershed and measurements of the water equivalent of the snow. It forecasts where reservoirs will be and the level of stream flows as the snowpack begins to melt.

The experts will caution that the accumulation of snowpack does not end now — higher elevations can get some good snows well into April, and sometimes May. But the trend is usually set by now, and El Niño is driving a low year for snowpack. We have had low years before. In 1987-88, the region suffered a severe drought that cost farmers in Eastern Washington millions of dollars in lost crops. A drought in the late 1970s also was quite severe.

'ꀜWe are seeing a downward trend in most of the forecasts, especially on the west side,'ꀝ said Scott Pattee, a snowpack specialist with the NRCS. 'ꀜLong-term forecasts for precipitation don'ꀙt look very good as well, so we most likely will continue down. We should have about 70 percent of our total annual snow on the ground by now. We currently have between 35-50 percent in all areas except the Olympic Peninsula which is above average.'ꀝ

The Basin Outlook report for January said the region actually had a good start to the current water 'ꀜyear'ꀝ (November to June). Above-average precipitation during October helped restore soil moisture after a dry summer. November was a little drier but brought the start of the snow season with record-breaking accumulations in some locations.

'ꀜUnfortunately, Mother Nature decided to turn the faucet down to a drizzle throughout December, leaving Washington with mostly below average snow and precipitation conditions coming into the New Year,'ꀝ the January report said.

Underscoring that point: After the major snowstorms that hit the East Coast this week, the other Washington had more snow on the ground (54.5 inches) than the base at the Summit at Snoqualmie (53 inches).

The most recent Basin Outlook report, released Feb.5 and covering the period through January, begins to lay out the concerns.

'ꀜRecord breaking temperatures and below average precipitation have water managers concerned that there will be enough runoff to fill reservoirs and supply irrigation and municipal systems to adequate levels this summer,'ꀝ the report said. 'ꀜWith temperatures averaging up to eight degrees above normal, recreationists and spectators are looking at the potential of a dismal season for winter sports, including the upcoming Winter Olympics just to the north of us in Vancouver.'ꀝ

Long-range forecasts are still calling for below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures, so the region may break even more records if these conditions persist.

The low snowpack is getting attention among farmers in Eastern Washington. The Ellensburg Record last week carried a long story on concerns about snowpack and its impact on import crops such as timothy hay.

'ꀜA thick snowpack that builds through the late fall and into January, February and March is seen as the important 'ꀘsixth reservoir,'ꀙ which is key to adequate irrigation supplies during the spring, summer and early fall in addition to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation'ꀙs five mountain reservoirs,'ꀝ the paper said.

Snowpack in that crucial area supplying the Yakima River is at about 70 percent of what it historically has been in February. The latest Basin Outlook report puts the Feb. 1 statewide snowpack at 74 percent of average, down from 84 percent a month ago.

The NRCS uses sophisticated measuring devices called Snotels. These are placed at various locations around the state and provide up-to-date information on precipitation, snow cover and the water-content of the snow. The Snotel network across the Western states is one of the most extensive in the world, providing water managers with the information they need to make the most of potentially low water years like this year.

For example, Arizona is having one of its best years ever in terms of snowpack. Recent big storms put the overall snowpack for that state at more than 200 percent of average. Colorado has unusual conditions with the Snotels there showing above average for the southwestern part of the state and below average in the north, typical for an El Niño year there.

There are wide variations in Washington as well. The Green River basin had the lowest readings at 33% of average. Readings from the Olympic Peninsula reported the highest at 106% of average. Snowpack in the Spokane River Basin was at 57% and the Walla Walla River Basin had 73% of average. Maximum snow cover in Washington was at the 'ꀜBrown Top'ꀝ Snotel near Ross Lake, with water content of 46.4 inches. The NRCS said Brown Top is a new Snotel, just installed last fall, so an average has not been developed. However the adjacent areas have a 30-year average of 42.5 inches at this point.

What does all this mean for snowpack? Several unknowns still remain which can change the outlook:

Typical El Niño years point to higher temperatures and lower precipitation in the months ahead. But there could still be significant snowfalls in the higher elevations.

How the snow melts is also a factor. A cool, cloudy spring, with a relatively low snowmelt, could make what snow there is in the mountains last longer. Last year in February the snowpack was at about the same level as now, but a cold, wet spring left the snowpack at 99 percent of average by April.

Mass said the region is better able to withstand these conditions as well.

"The reservoir managers are much better at managing El Niño conditions and in fact some of the reservoirs are above normal,'ꀝ he said. In 1992 managers did not manage reservoirs well and there was a water shortage in the summer, Mass said.

'ꀜIt won't happen again,'ꀝ he said. 'ꀜI don't expect a major water shortage this summer, certainly not in the west. There will be some water restrictions in the east, but nothing terrible.'ꀝ

The Columbia River basin may be better off than others, mostly because of higher snowfall on the Canadian side of the basin. So areas like the Horse Heaven Hills along the Columbia might do better than other areas.

Enjoy the winter Olympics in our backyard. Look for the commentators to talk about the weather and its impact 'ꀓ at Whistler there will be lots of snow but big races may occur with temperatures at or above freezing. The trucked-in snow near Vancouver will be interesting to watch.

Otherwise, look out. Snowpack will be low and water supplies may still be a problem in some areas of the state as we move into the summer months. But history indicates these events tend to run in two-year cycles. We may skate by this year, but watch out for 2011.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy

Stephen H. Dunphy writes on business and economic issues for Crosscut. He was a business editor and columnist for a number of years at The Seattle Times.