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Water Supply Outlook: Bad And Getting Worse

Warm temperatures dramatically reduce snow pack

The latest report from the Washington Snow Survey Office in Mount Vernon indicates possible trouble ahead for the state regarding water supply.

"Washington is not getting off to a very good start this season," explained Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "With less than one half of the normal snowpack and only three-quarters of the normal precipitation, all eyes are waiting to see what will happen next."

As of Jan. 20, the agency was reporting that warm temperatures in the Pacific Northwest had dramatically decreased the snowpack for the week. According to the report, snowpack in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington saw losses of snowpack at all elevations as the area has seen record and near record temperatures recently. Losses ranged from 50 percent to 100 percent of accumulated snowpack.

In an earlier report, Pattee explained that automated snow telemetry stations were reporting record to near-record low snowfalls as of Jan. 1.

"There have only been a couple of years that have started off this slow since the late 1970s," Pattee said. "Unfortunately, weather forecast agencies are predicting a continuation of the current El Nino pattern of below normal precipitation and above average temperatures for the next 90 days."

Pete Stocks, Klickitat District Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said it has been a long time since he's seen a winter this dry.

"In the 1980s we had several winters like this, where you can drive up to the 3,000 feet level without seeing any snow. It might have been 15 years ago, though," Stocks said. "This is the first in quite awhile."

Stocks said the lack of precipitation has been severe.

"We missed all the rain in October and November, and then in December we hardly got anything, rain or snow," Stocks explained. "At some of the higher elevations around Glenwood, the snowpack is not completely gone, but at 3,000 feet there is barely anything -- maybe six to eight inches of snow. Usually at this time of year, we have two or three feet."

A Jan. 21 report from the U.S. Forest Service was especially pessimistic about the forecast.

"Barring a `March miracle,' we have lost the opportunity to accumulate significant snowpack in our area," read an excerpt. "This will affect groundwater, stream flow, and pond recharge and leave heavy fuels at higher elevations drier than normal. There have only been a few years (1977, 1981, 1990) that have started off this slow."

"We don't know what normal is any more," Stocks commented.

According to Stocks, one of the big worries is how the lack of snow and rain may impact fire conditions.

"With such a small amount of rain, we're concerned about the fire season," Stocks said. "If we do have late snow it will help with irrigation, but as far as firefighting, we really need to have the fuels dampened to have a normal fire year. We may catch up, but it won't last long enough to help."

Stocks said the lack of snowpack will also hurt aquifer recharge, and the lack of water from springs will make it tougher on wildlife as well.

Jim White, director of the Underwood Conservation District in White Salmon, pointed out that the lack of snowpack will have a domino effect.

"It will mean really low stream flows in summer, and streams get warmer when the levels are lower," White explained. "That's one of the problems with low flows. Fish don't do as well when the stream gets warmer."

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