Last year’s drought not expected to repeat in 2016

By Ann McCreary

With an ample snowpack and forecasts for continued snow in the mountains, the prospects for a drought-free year in Washington look more promising every day.

As winter turns the corner and heads into spring, the statewide snowpack average is 110 percent of normal, and the Okanogan Basin leads in snowpack accumulation with 148 percent of normal, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“We’re 70 percent through winter, and still have February and March to collect snowpack,” Pattee said Monday (Feb. 8).

At the Harts Pass SNOTEL monitoring station in the North Cascades above the Methow Valley, the snowpack this week measured 98 inches with a snow water equivalent of 40.6 inches — 133 percent of average.

Last winter’s scant snowpack and early melt-off pushed Washington into the worst drought in state history. A statewide drought emergency was declared by Gov. Jay Inslee in May. The drought resulted in huge crop losses, millions of dead fish in dried up rivers and streams, and a devastating wildfire season.

Optimistic outlook

With most basins recording normal to above normal snow accumulation at this point, the outlook for the coming summer is far more optimistic.

“In comparison to last year’s snow drought we’re sitting really well,” Pattee said. “It’s really critical that we had a good snowpack this year. The rest will be a coast as long as the temperatures don’t elevate to the point to cause snowmelt.”

Temperatures are predicted to be warmer than normal — a result of an El Niño weather pattern. Just how warm temperatures get will determine how well the snowpack holds up, he said.

El Niño is a periodic warming of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. In the western United States, El Niños typically produce wetter-than-normal conditions over California, and drier- and warmer-than-normal weather in the Northwest and Canada

“We’re sitting on one of the strongest El Niños on record. Temperatures are hovering just above normal,” Pattee said. Sunday (Feb. 7) set a record of 10-15 degrees above normal in the mountains, “which is where we were at last year at this time,” he said. However, the temperatures cooled off to more normal temperatures at night, he added.

More snow to come

The National Weather Service three-month forecast is for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, but short-term forecasts call for continued snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys.

“If we start receiving very little precipitation and temperatures start to jump it could cause us problems, and bring the snow off early,” Pattee said. “But regardless what happens, we’re not going to be anywhere near where we were last year.”

The state received normal to slightly above-normal precipitation during January, with a statewide average of 129 percent above normal. Only the northeast corner of the state fell below 100 percent of normal, Pattee said.

The generous snowpack is expected to translate into plenty of water in rivers and streams. Early winter forecasts for April-September stream flows call for above-normal flows in most rivers in the state, including the Methow River, which is forecast to run about 128 percent of normal.

Elsewhere in the state, snowpack conditions are far more positive this year than last. The normally snowy Olympic Mountains were as low as 3 percent of average snowpack last year at this time. This week the Olympic snowpack is about 105 percent of average, Pattee said.

Stream flow forecasts for the Dungeness and Elwha Rivers on the Olympic Peninsula are 110-112 percent of normal.

Reservoir levels around the state have rebounded, thanks to a very wet fall. Reservoir storage in the Yakima Basin ranges from 112-127 percent of average, Pattee said.

State officials let a two-year drought declaration lapse as of Jan. 1, after heavy precipitation during December built up snowpack in Washington’s mountains.