Wash. snowpack below average so far - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Wash. snowpack below average so far

SPOKANE, Wash. - For Washington residents, El Niño may be both a blessing and a curse.

Warmer and drier winter conditions are bringing relief to valley residents weary from last year's record snowfalls, but if El Niño's effects persist, its impact may pose challenges for water managers and water users later this summer.

An El Niño is a temporary change in the climate of the Pacific Ocean that generally creates warmer and drier conditions for the Inland Northwest region. While the presence of an El Niño doesn't guarantee those conditions, so far this year, the phenomenon is living up to its reputation.

According to January's Water Supply Outlook Report issued by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), snowpack conditions statewide are 84 percent of average, down from 132 percent just a month ago.

"November brought record-breaking snow accumulations in some locations," said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the NRCS in Mt. Vernon. "Unfortunately Mother Nature decided to turn the faucet down to a trickle throughout December, leaving Washington with mostly below-average snow and precipitation conditions coming into 2010," he said.

NRCS measures the depth and water content of snow at more than 100 locations around the state. The data is used to estimate how much water will flow down rivers and streams and into reservoirs as the snow melts.

"Conditions at our snow measurement sites vary from Green River's low of 49 percent, to the Olympic Peninsula's high of 123 percent of average," Pattee said.

River basin averages across the state show a similar – though somewhat less dramatic – disparity:

  • Lewis-Cowlitz – 90 percent
  • North Puget Sound – 79 percent
  • Central Puget – 72 percent
  • Yakima area – 79 percent
  • Wenatchee area –  72 percent
  • Walla Walla – 89 percent
  • Spokane – 56 percent

"Long-range weather forecasts differ in terms of precipitation," Pattee said, "but they all appear to agree that warmer-than-normal conditions will likely persist throughout the winter."

That's probably good news for valley motorists and city plowing budgets. But for a state that receives 70 percent of its water from snowpack runoff, continued dry conditions will underscore the need for water managers to closely monitor conditions heading into the spring.

"It's obviously still early in the water year," Pattee said. "We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed that as we progress through the snow season, El Niño lessens its grip on our mountain precipitation."

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