Dry weather, warm temperatures mean slower start
Snow that blanketed the Methow Valley early this week bolstered the appearance of winter, but it will take a deluge of snow in the mountains during the remainder of the season to overcome a significant deficit in the snowpack.
Abnormally dry weather in November and the first half of December, combined with warmer-than-normal temperatures, resulted in one of the slowest starts to winter and the mountain snowpack in Washington’s history, according to state water-supply experts.
At the beginning of January, the winter snowpack was less than half the normal amount and reminiscent of 2015, the most-recent year that Washington experienced a statewide drought, said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This winter is the third-slowest start to winter snowpack since 1990, he said.
“November was among the driest on record, in the bottom percentile of precipitation. The first half of December was still very dry and warmer than normal,” Pattee said. Those warmer temperatures impacted even the high elevations of the North Cascade mountains, he said. “So, what precipitation we did get was in the form of rain,” Pattee said.
Mountain precipitation has been 80% of normal — and that includes rain — for the snow year starting Oct. 1, he said.
November is normally the wettest month of the year in Washington, but last November was the fifth-driest on record, going back to 1895, said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist. Water supplies statewide were already low as fall began, she said. State water-supply managers are monitoring conditions, especially in the Yakima basin, where reservoirs that support agriculture started winter lower than normal.
Well below normal
As of early this week, with a storm bringing snow in the mountains, the statewide snowpack average was 65% of normal, Pattee said. Most sites picked up snow from a storm on Jan. 6.
The upper Columbia River basin, which includes the Methow Valley, had the highest snowpack readings in the state at 83% of normal. The lower Columbia basin had the lowest snowpack readings at 53% of normal.
At Harts Pass, elevation 6,490 feet, the snowpack reading was 93% of normal. Harts Pass, in the mountains above Mazama, often has one of the highest snowpack readings in the state, and it has picked up 29 inches of new snow since Jan. 1.
Rainy Pass, elevation 4,890 feet, had a snowpack of 78% of normal and gained about 15 inches of new snow since Jan. 1 (more than half of its total snow depth). Salmon Meadows, near Conconully, elevation 4,460 feet, had about 38% of normal snowpack with only 2 inches of new snow since Jan. 1 (half of that fell Jan. 6).
“We’re getting a lot closer to catching up at Harts Pass than anywhere in the state, but that’s our highest SNOTEL site,” Pattee said.
Mountain snowpack serves as a reservoir of water that feeds rivers and streams as it melts in the spring. Farmers, fish and wildlife, and recreationists depend on the supply of water from the mountains during the hot, dry months of summer and fall. Snowpack is measured in terms of “snow-water equivalent,” which is the amount of water contained within the snowpack.
While the short-term forecast calls for a cooler and wetter period through mid-January, “the long-term outlook is not looking really great for the second half of winter,” Bumbaco said. The national Climate Prediction Center forecasts warmer-than-normal temperatures throughout the state. In eastern Washington, the prediction is for equal chances of above- or below-normal precipitation.
“We would have to have 130% or more of snowpack between now and April 1 to bring us to normal,” Pattee said. If warmer-than-normal temperatures push freezing levels to higher elevations, that will mean less snowpack accumulation. Still, “it’s too early in the season to get too much panic,” he said.
In the Methow Valley, the low snow in early winter created challenging conditions for Methow Trails, the nonprofit organization that operates the cross-country ski-trail system that is vital to the valley’s economy in winter. Both last year and this year, Methow Trails has had to work with very little snow to groom trails during the busy Christmas season, a 10-day period that is the biggest revenue producer for the organization.
“On Jan. 1 last year we had 22 inches on the ground in Mazama. This year we had 15 inches. It’s less than last year but was still workable,” said James DeSalvo, Methow Trails’ executive director. There was barely enough snow to work with, but almost every trail was open, he said.
The thin snow cover meant that Methow Trails was doing most of its grooming with snowmobiles and ATVs, rather than the larger PistenBully groomers, DeSalvo said. “We’re really careful how we work it. We have to have a lighter touch on the ground.”
He said investments in labor and equipment to clear vegetation on the trail system during the summer paid off. In particular, thinning the tree canopy above some sections of the trail system means that more snow reaches the ground and stays there. “We want to maximize every single flake that hits the ground,” DeSalvo said.
Despite the less-than-ideal snow conditions over the holiday, skiers still came, DeSalvo said. Many congregated on ski trails in Mazama, where one trail-pass vendor reported record sales, he said. “From initial indications of hotel bookings, ski-school rentals and ticket sales, we had a successful Christmas and winter break,” he said.
Loup Loup Ski Bowl was unable to open during the Christmas holiday. Last year it was partially open, with the luge run, rope tow and poma lift operating, said Manager Dave Betts. “I really feel for our pass holders,” he said.
Snow on Jan. 6 added only 1 1/2 inches to the 13 inches at the mountaintop at the Loup, but the forecast is encouraging, Betts said. Three to 5 more inches of snow will enable them to start packing the slopes. With cold-enough weather to preserve the surface — or a little more snow — the Loup could open Wednesday (Jan. 15), Betts said.
Last year the Loup opened with just 16 inches of snow — the shallowest depth in some three decades, he said.
The ski area spent $80,000 last year to renovate its chair lift, and Betts is eager to get it running. “It’s in the best shape it’s been in since it was installed,” he said. He said the Loup Loup’s annual fundraising auction helps it survive financially during a winter like this.
Other ski hills in the area that have reciprocal agreements with the Loup are offering free or reduced-price day tickets for season-pass holders. Details are at skitheloup.com.
On a positive note, Betts said the Loup Loup’s $1-million capital campaign to build a new lodge and expand the rental shop has passed $400,000.
The forecast this week is for continued moisture and colder temperatures.
Marcy Stamper contributed reporting to this story.