Improved conditions relieve statewide drought concerns
By Ann McCreary
A series of storms that dumped snow on the North Cascades during the second half of December helped bring the mountain snowpack to well above normal and eased fears about another year of extreme drought in Washington.
In the Upper Columbia Basin, which includes the Methow Valley, snowpack readings are 139 percent of normal for this time of year, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The SNOTEL monitoring station at Hart’s Pass reported the snowpack was 164 percent of normal as of early this week, Pattee said.
The snowpack measurements refer to the amount of water contained in the snow, which is key to providing snowmelt in spring to sustain agriculture, fish and wildlife, and recreation.
Statewide, snowpack readings are 141 percent of normal, Pattee said.
“Right now we’re sitting in pretty good shape everywhere,” he said. “Nothing is below normal in terms of the snow water equivalent.”
Even if the rest of the winter is drier — which is predicted to be the case in the Northwest — the generous snowpack indicates a more positive outlook for water supplies next year compared to 2015.
“We’ll have to wait and see. But there is a good chance of carrying over and coasting out the rest of the winter,” Pattee said.
The healthy snowpack prompted Washington water supply advisers to recommend allowing the state’s drought emergency declaration to expire on Dec. 31.
The statewide drought emergency was declared by Gov. Jay Inslee in May as a result of historically low mountain snowpacks. The drought resulted in huge crop losses, millions of dead fish in dried up rivers and streams, and a devastating wildfire season.
“All agreed that water supply conditions have improved so much that we’re not going to meet criteria required by state law to extend the drought declaration,” said Dan Partridge of Department of Ecology’s water resources program.
“For quite some time, even into the first of December, we showed extreme drought conditions for eastern Washington. The extreme drought has disappeared,” he said. “We’re significantly better now, by far.”
The welcome snow of late December caps a record-breaking year in terms of Washington weather, said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist.
“Were extremely confident that 2015 will be the warmest year on record for Washington State,” dating back to 1895 when record-keeping began, she said Tuesday (Dec. 29).
“Every month was above normal except for September and November,” which were just slightly below normal, Bumbaco said.
The month of December would have to be 9 degrees below normal to prevent 2015 from becoming the warmest year on record. So far, December is about 2 degrees above normal, she said.
Temperature figures for Winthrop in 2015 provided by the climatologist’s office give a sense of how the year played out in local weather. Every month except April, September and November was warmer than normal.
January was 1.8 degrees warmer; February, 6.3 degrees warmer; March, 6 degrees warmer; April, 0.1 degree cooler; May, 2.7 degrees warmer; June, 6.7 degrees warmer; July, 3.9 degrees warmer; August, 0.9 degrees warmer; September, 2.2 degrees cooler; October, 3.8 degrees warmer; November, 2.5 degrees cooler; and December appears to be about 2 degrees warmer.
Statewide, November and December were much wetter than normal, Bumbaco said. “It was cold enough that the mountains finally got the snow we were waiting for,” she said.
That wet pattern is expected to change soon, however, as a result of an El Niño weather system that is described by meteorologists as one of the strongest in decades.
El Niño is a periodic warming of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, which occurs every two to seven years, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
El Niño systems affect weather across the continent, bringing warmer temperatures across the northern United States and cooler temperatures in the south.
El Niño effects
In the West, El Niños typically produce wetter-than-normal conditions over California, and drier-and-warmer-than-normal weather in the Northwest and Canada, according to NOAA. The effects are most likely to felt in the second half of the winter.
“In January through March … there are strong indications for above normal temperatures [and] precipitation on the drier side,” Bumbaco said.
But, she added, “even if we had a drier January through March, we’d still be in way better shape than we were last year. I don’t foresee the record low snowpacks at the end of April” that Washington experienced this year, she said.
University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass, in his online weather blog, said the transition to the El Niño pattern is about to occur, “with a major circulation shift that will dry out the Northwest and increase precipitation over California.”
Predictions for the next two weeks by the National Weather Service show much less precipitation over Washington, but substantial amounts over California.
Forecasts this week showed no indication of precipitation in the Methow Valley for almost two weeks. Predictions of several days of stagnant air prompted Ecology to issue a burn ban Dec. 29-Jan. 4 to reduce air pollution in Okanogan County and eight other eastern Washington counties.
“The bottom line: enjoy your skiing now,” advised Mass. “You should not expect the second half of the winter to bring bountiful snow like the first.”
Reservoirs are full as a result of the heavy December precipitation, but water managers should be conservative to save as much water as possible because of the drier forecast for the remainder of winter, Mass said.
He added, “Our huge snowpack [compared to the wimpy one of last year] should ensure that next summer is no repeat of last summer.”