A severe lack of snow in Washington’s mountains could signal trouble for the state’s water supply later this year, according to specialists who have been monitoring the mountain snowpack.
The mountain snowpack on Jan. 1 was 52 percent of average, with the Olympics and Central Puget Sound Cascades faring the worst with 27 percent and 34 percent, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which assists conservation efforts on nonfederal lands. The percentage is better than at this time last year, when similar worries were aired. However, last year, snowfall that came later in the season made up for the deficit.
“We are sitting at about half of normal, give or take a few points, and we would certainly like to see it in better shape than that,” said Scott Pattee, a water-supply specialist with the conservation service’s Mount Vernon office.
The low snowpack may come as a surprise after heavy rain fell on the Washington coast and throughout the region this past weekend. However, it didn’t add much to the snowpack because of the higher temperatures, Pattee said. Some rain is absorbed into snowpack, but more intense rains — such as the precipitation from last weekend — especially with warmer temperatures, contribute to melting.
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“They got lots of rain, and rainfall is good, but those warm temperatures have just killed us,” Pattee said.
The snowpack is considered an additional reservoir, Pattee said, one that, come spring, starts to melt and accounts for a majority of the water supply. Snowmelt contributes to the Cedar River Watershed, which provides about 70 percent of the drinking water to 1.4 million Seattle-area residents, according to the City of Seattle.
In 2005, the last time the state declared a drought emergency, the snowpack was at 40 percent of average at the beginning of the year and at 26 percent by March. That winter was one of the warmest and driest on record, according to the state Department of Ecology.
Unlike last year’s weather, the seasonal forecast this year is for warmer temperatures and drier conditions, according to the National Weather Service.
Though the numbers are low, those monitoring the snowpack aren’t worried just yet, Pattee said.
“We have a lot of winter to go still,” Pattee said. “We aren’t pushing the panic button, but it’s good to stay on top of it.”
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or firstname.lastname@example.org