By Ann McCreary
Transportation crews began clearing the North Cascades Highway from the Methow Valley side on Monday (March 16), opening up about 7 miles and stopping just below the Silver Star gate at the end of the first day.
With far less snow and fewer avalanches than normal on the roadway, the highway is expected to be open in less than a month.
“This is my 20th opening and this is the least snow I’ve ever seen,” said Don Becker with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in Twisp. This year’s conditions are in contrast to last year, which had one of the deepest snowpacks at Washington Pass and took more than five weeks to clear.
There are 27 documented slide paths between the Silver Star gate and Rainy Pass that usually bury the highway in many feet of snow. This year, however, several slides that normally cross the highway below Cutthroat Ridge did not even reach the road, Becker said.
The Cutthroat Ridge slides that have crossed the road are only about 10 feet deep. “They’re normally anywhere from 20 feet deep,” Becker said.
Higher up the highway at Washington Pass, snow depth on the road surface is about 55 inches — about 4 ½ feet. “It’s normally between 8 and 13 feet. It’s about half of normal this year,” Becker said.
The Liberty Bell No. 1 avalanche chute below Washington Pass usually dumps about 60 feet of snow on the highway and the slide is usually 400-500 feet wide. This year it’s about 25-30 feet deep and 300-400 feet across, Becker said.
The biggest challenge facing road crews turned out to be a solid layer of 8-inch-thick ice on the pavement as crews began clearing snow at Early Winters. So they traded snow blowers for a grader with ice blades and a front-end loader to clear the surface
The first day of highway clearing also greeted crews with 8 inches of new snow at the Silver Star gate deposited by a storm on Sunday (March 15). The weather station at Washington Pass summit measured 15 inches of new snow.
From the west side
Work on the west side of highway will begin March 23, because crews are working on a rock slope stabilization project, according to WSDOT. The highway is cleared to the project site about 9 miles past the normal road closure, so the crews on the west side are already ahead of schedule.
The low snowpack may be good news for people anxious to drive across the North Cascades highway, but continues to be bad news for most of the state.
Near record-low snowpack prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a drought emergency last week across three regions including Wenatchee, Yakima and Walla Walla.
Snowpack is only 7 percent of normal in the Olympic Mountains. It ranges from 8 percent to 45 percent of normal across the Cascades, and is 67 percent of normal in the Walla Walla region.
The Methow Valley watershed continues to be an outlier, with the highest snowpack level in the state, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A weather system Sunday dropped 11 inches of snow at Harts Pass and brought the snowpack to 104 percent of normal. It had dropped to 99 percent of normal prior to the storm, Pattee said.
Much of the snow at Harts Pass was deposited in a very localized storm in November, Pattee said.
Unusually warm winter temperatures caused much of the precipitation last winter to fall as rain, leaving the mountain snowpack level well below normal. The melting snowpack is what feeds rivers across the state and sustains farms and fish through the drier summer months.
“Reservoirs are full, but don’t have anything to recharge them,” Pattee said.
Short- and long-range weather forecasts do not predict relief, calling for warmer and drier weather than normal.