But conditions may improve somewhat over last year’s
By Ann McCreary
Despite a hopeful backdrop of snow-covered mountains, the prospect of continued drought next year remains, although it may not reach the record-breaking proportions of 2015.
As winter approaches, climate experts in Washington are predicting a much warmer winter than normal, and a corresponding impact on the mountain snowpack that feeds rivers and streams.
In a bit of good news, the snowpack deficit in the North Cascades isn’t expected to be as extreme as last winter’s meager 20 percent of normal snowpack.
“The figures I’ve seen … projects it in the 70-80 percent of normal range,” said Dan Partridge, communications manager in the state Department of Ecology.
Storms last weekend brought a promising early snowfall to the mountains around the Methow Valley. The North Cascades Highway received up to 25 inches of snow over the weekend, said Don Becker, maintenance supervisor for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in Twisp.
Transportation crews plowed snow Saturday and Sunday nights, Becker said. By Monday the snowpack had compressed to about 18 inches and snow showers and flurries were continuing. Becker said this was the earliest that crews have had to plow the highway in the past couple of years.
Travelers on the North Cascades Highway on Tuesday morning (Nov. 3) reported another 2 inches of fresh snow.
The snow at high elevations attracted some eager skiers who set informal cross country ski tracks at Washington Pass over the weekend, said Danica Ready of Methow Trails.
“We’re getting a good start to the season, we’ve had some pretty good snowfall,” said Scott
Pattee, water supply specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service.
The Snotel snowpack monitoring site at Hart’s Pass showed 15 inches of snow on Tuesday, Pattee said. That is 112 percent of normal for the current water year, which began Oct. 1.
Hart’s Pass consistently had higher snowpack last winter than other Snotel sites in the North Cascades.
Precipitation at Rainy Pass is 8.3 inches since Oct. 1, which is about 163 percent of normal, Pattee said.
Drought picture unchanged
Although the recent rain and snow are welcome, it hasn’t changed the overall drought picture for eastern Washington.
“Your part of the state is still in extreme drought,” Partridge said. “It was good to see this rain, but we still have two-thirds of the state in extreme drought.”
“In western Washington we’ve developed some pockets of moderate drought because of the precipitation we’ve had,” he said.
After the warmest summer ever recorded in Washington, temperatures in September cooled off a bit. In fact, September was just the slightest bit cooler than normal — by six-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit, and broke a yearlong string of warmer-than-normal temperatures, said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist.
“This was the first month since November 2014 that showed cooler than normal for the majority of the state,” she said.
The overall increase in temperatures is expected to continue through winter due to a very strong El Nino weather pattern. El Niño results from warm sea surface temperature in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
“It’s expected to be one of the warmest El Niños on record,” said Partridge.
Climate prediction models for the Northwest indicate wetter than normal conditions on the coast through December, according to Cliff Mass, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington and author of a regular Weather Blog.
That wet pattern is expected to become warmer and drier than normal over the Northwest in January, February and March, but not as warm as last year, Mass said.
“So there should be a far healthier snowpack on April 1, but less than normal,” Mass said.
“Unfortunately it’s not looking that great,” except perhaps by comparison, said Bumbaco of the climatologist’s office. “The only good news is that last winter was so much warmer than normal. It’s unlikely we’ll get that warm again.”
Facing the prospect of another below-normal snowpack, state officials are preparing for a second year of drought.
“We’re carrying a huge water deficit into this fall and winter,” said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology, during a recent conference call about the drought.
“We’re already preparing for what very well could be another difficult year ahead.”
Ecology is coordinating with irrigation districts, like in the Yakima Basin — the state’s greatest agricultural area. Plans are being made to start leasing water as early as January, well ahead of next year’s planting season, to help farmers better plan for water supply and crop rotations.
A big toll
This year’s drought took a toll on natural resources and agriculture. Wildfires consumed more than 1 million acres in Washington in the state’s worst wildfire year.
Farmers fallowed land, apples were small, ranchers shipped cattle early because pastures were dry, and cherry trees in Zillah bloomed this fall, Bellon said.
The federal drought declaration provides resources for farmers, but they must document their loses. State agricultural officials said they are working to assess the economic damage from the drought.
Fish hatcheries around the state had to cope with warm water that led to disease and parasites among the juvenile fish. About 1.5 million juvenile Coho, steelhead and rainbow trout died as a result of illness brought on by warm water temperatures, according to fisheries officials.
At the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery, which raises one million Coho, spring Chinook and steelhead annually, “we fared pretty well,” said manager Chris Pasley. “We had a little increased disease incidence due to warmer water.”
Some Coho juveniles developed a bacterial infection that was successfully treated with antibiotics. Steelhead developed a parasite that the hatchery treated by increasing water flows and the turnover of fresh water in the raceways that hold the fish.
“We’re fortunate that we have several groundwater sources” that the hatchery can mix with surface water to keep temperatures cooler, Pasley said.
“A lot of hatcheries didn’t have the extra water. It was definitely one of the worst [seasons] we’ve seen,” said Pasley, who has worked at the hatchery for 21 years.
The predictions for warmer weather this winter, which will likely result in more precipitation falling as rain and less as snow, means less water stored as snow in the mountains to recharge rivers and streams for fish and wildlife, agriculture and recreation.
That pattern is consistent with models of climate change, said Cindy Barton of the U.S. Geological Survey.
“This is a preview of how climate change is predicted to impact water resources,” she said.
“This could be the new normal,” Bellon said.