Up, down snowpack conditions offer uncertain water outlook - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Up, down snowpack conditions offer uncertain water outlook

SPOKANE, Wash. - If you make your living managing any part of Washington's water supply, you may want to reach for the Tums. It's just been that kind of water year.

"It's been so unpredictable that I doubt Vegas would give odds on what Washington's final snowpack conditions are going to be," said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). "The snowpack this season has been as manic and as erratic as any I've ever seen in my 16 years measuring and monitoring conditions."

The NRCS provides high-elevation snowpack information to water managers and makes its stream flow forecasts based on the depth and water content of snow at more than 100 snow data collection sites throughout the state. Water managers then use the NRCS information to make their decisions regarding how much water to hold or release from their reservoirs and when to release it - based on anticipated stream flows.

It's those high elevation snowpack conditions that ultimately determine how much water will be released in the form of stream flows throughout the spring and summer. Some 70 percent of the state depends on those stream flows for its municipal, agricultural and recreational use.

"In November and early December, snowpack conditions were anemic," he said, "but from mid-December through the first of January a series of winter storms transformed a 40 percent of average snowpack into one that was slightly above normal."

At the time, it appeared to be a robust and remarkable snowpack turn-around.

"Now," he said, "it looks like we've turned around again - but, this time in the wrong direction."

According to Pattee, the February 1 statewide snowpack readings were 82 percent of average, down from a high of 106 percent following the January storms.

Pattee said the Green and Tolt river basins are the only basins to remain above average at 105 percent  and 130 percent, respectively.  The Conconully Lake area snow survey reported the lowest reading at 34 percent of average.

Other basin snowpack averages from the NRCS automated snow data collection sites and February 1 manual snow survey measurements included...

  • The North Puget Sound river - 79 percent
  • The Central Puget river basins - 102 percent
  • The Lewis-Cowlitz basins - 90 percent
  • The Yakima area - 75 percent
  • The Wenatchee area - 63 percent
  • The Spokane River Basin - 82 percent
  • The Walla Walla River Basin - 83 percent

Pattee said long range forecasts suggest that below-average temperatures should remain though the end of April, but the long-range precipitation forecasts are undecided.    

"Unless we make up a lot of ground in the next couple of months," he said, "resource managers may have to begin planning for worst-case scenarios and water shortages for spring and summer runoff.

"Those Tums," Pattee said, "could come in handy."

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