Nordic trail conditions vary around the Methow Valley
By Ann McCreary
A month ago, the outlook for mountain snowpack throughout Washington was bleak, with snowpack accumulations only about one-third the normal amount for that time of year.
Storms that arrived in December and early January changed that picture, dumping enough snow to bring mountain snowpack to near-normal levels statewide — and above normal in some areas of the North Cascades, including Harts Pass in the mountains above Mazama.
“We had a very slow start statewide with our snowpack,” said Jeff Marti, drought coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology. A warmer- and drier-than-normal November resulted in one of the slowest starts to snowpack accumulation in three decades. “During the first week of December we were at about 35 percent of normal,” Marti said.
That was worrisome for state water managers. The winter snowpack serves as a vast reservoir of water that feeds rivers and streams as snow melts during spring and summer. Farmers, recreationists, fish and wildlife depend on a steady supply of melted snow during the hot, dry summer months.
December delivered above-normal precipitation, but it also brought temperatures that were warmer than normal, especially in the mountains. “Freezing levels were running about 1,000 feet higher than normal,” Marti said. High temperatures from October through November in the mountains were in the top 10 percent historically, according to Ecology.
Those higher-than-normal mountain temperatures and freezing levels meant that lower elevation areas that normally get snow — such as the Methow Valley — got some precipitation in the form of rain during December. “It reduced the snowpack in some areas,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Snow depth on the floor of the Methow Valley was significantly lower as of Dec. 31 compared to the previous five years, based on records kept by Rick LeDuc, the Mazama weather spotter/observer for the National Weather Service’s Spokane office. The weather station is at LeDuc’s home, about a mile from the Mazama Store. Records show that this past December had less snow than all of the past five years, and was warmer than all but one of those years.
Snow depth in Mazama was 14 inches on Dec. 31 — 10 inches less than the previous year, which had a Dec. 31 depth of 2 feet. The snow depth was less, despite the fact that there was more precipitation in December 2018 — 4.03 inches compared to 2.87 inches in 2017 — because some precipitation fell as rain rather than snow.
The average high temperature at the Mazama station for December (29.8 degrees) was higher than any of the past five years except 2014 (30.3 degrees). The average low temperature (18.3 degrees) in December was also higher than any of the previous years except 2014 (20.2 degrees).
Conditions this winter have been challenging at times for Methow Trails, which operates the Nordic ski trail system that is a key part of the valley’s economy in winter. Trail grooming began Dec. 9, only five days later than 2017’s Dec. 4 grooming start. However, “the thin snowpack we were dealing with prior to the holidays was a challenge to work with,” said James DeSalvo, Methow Trails executive director.
Small storms during December that brought an inch or two of snow at a time allowed Methow Trails to gradually open its trail system, and be fully open by the time the holidays arrived, “which is really the critical time for us to support our organization and support the whole valley with economic connections to the trails,” DeSalvo said.
“Typically, we’ll have one or two big storms early on that get the majority of trails open with one shot. We’ve had these little shots that have been slowly building up. We haven’t had a storm with over 6 inches [of snow],” DeSalvo said.
Trail groomers have had to contend with a range of conditions, including an ice storm on Dec. 29. “Getting that in the heart of our holiday period was challenging,” DeSalvo said. “There have been really varied conditions depending on the location in the valley.”
“Groomers would go through little microclimates of warm weather where it would be raining in one area, on another trail it would be snowing, on another it would be freezing rain,” DeSalvo said.
Despite the unusual weather and lower snow conditions, visitors appear to be undeterred, DeSalvo said. “Early indications … are that ticket sales and visitation are on par or better than last year. Even with challenging conditions it’s not keeping people away.”
El Niño predicted
Mountain snowpack readings from NRCS SNOTEL (snow telemetry) sites as of Tuesday (Jan. 8) ranged from 95 percent of normal in the upper Columbia basin (including the Methow Valley) and North Puget Sound, to 73 percent of normal in the lower Columbia basin.
At Harts Pass, elevation 6,490 feet, the snowpack was 112 percent of normal as of Tuesday. Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway, elevation 4,890 feet, had snowpack at 82 percent of normal and Salmon Meadows, north of Conconully, elevation 4,460 feet, had about 60 percent of normal snowpack.
Snowpack is measured in terms of “snow water equivalent,” which is the amount of water contained within the snowpack.
Most of eastern Washington saw relatively higher temperatures in December, compared to the western part of the state, said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist. Temperatures were 4-8 degrees above normal in eastern Washington, with Omak seeing temperatures that were 6.5 degrees higher than normal in December.
With the boost from snowfall in December and early January, “we’re sitting pretty good right now,” Bumbaco said. “December and January are usually our biggest months to build snowpack. On the other hand, the seasonal forecasts aren’t that optimistic in terms of conditions being right for snow.”
Bumbaco said an El Niño weather pattern is expected to develop in January, according to forecasts by the national Climate Prediction Center.
El Niño is a recurring climate pattern involving periodic warming in sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The result in the United States is warmer and drier conditions across the northern part of the country, and wetter and colder weather across the southern tier.
“There’s a 90 percent probability of El Niño developing this winter,” Marti said. “I think that means we’re going to have some headwind in terms of maintaining our snowpack. We’ll still get snow, the question is whether we’ll keep up with a normal rate of accumulation.”
“The risk of us by April being in a situation where the snowpack is below normal — there are pretty good odds for that,” Marti said. “If I were a water user or water manager, I’d be watching that very carefully.” Irrigators, municipalities and other water users may need to be “prepared for a less-than-optimal water situation this summer,” he said
Part of the equation is whether the snowpack melts off rapidly in the spring, or melts slowly enough to sustain water supplies into the dry summer months, Marti said. “Last year we had a really good snowpack and a really rapid runoff,” he said.