As high temperatures baked Western Washington during the late-June heat wave, the robust mountain snowpack melted quickly.
Data points for what is called snow water equivalent, which is an estimate of how much summer water supply is available, rapidly turned from healthy blues and greens to red on government maps.
“We definitely saw record melt rates all over the state,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pattee and others with the Natural Resources Conservation Service collect information about how snowpack that feeds the Skagit River and other watersheds throughout the western United States accumulates and melts.
On Thursday, Pattee and Snow Survey Hydrologist Matt Warbritton, who is based out of the program’s Portland office, drove winding roads along Baker Lake and into the adjacent national forest to reach one of the dozens of monitoring sites they maintain in the state.
Between the time snow begins melting each May and accumulation begins again in October, Pattee, Warbritton and the rest of their six-person team visit each site in Washington and Oregon for annual maintenance.
Each site consists of equipment that measures precipitation levels, snow depth and air temperature. Measurements are sent automatically to a database hourly and allow the agency to estimate how much water may be funneled from the mountains to corresponding rivers each summer.
As the team navigates from site to site for maintenance during the warm season, Pattee said they usually see remnant snowpack well into July as normal melting occurs. This year, there was none.
Snow water equivalent for the North Puget Sound monitoring region, which covers the Skagit River watershed, dropped from 100% of normal on June 1 to 67% of normal on June 18 — the first day in the red, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data.
As the heat wave brought record-setting, triple-digit temperatures to the area the following week, the snow water equivalent reached zero on June 26.
“It (always) melts, but not that rapidly,” Pattee said.
To ensure snow water equivalent can be tracked this coming winter, Pattee and the team are traversing the region to check equipment at each monitoring site, replace the nontoxic antifreeze-ethanol mix critical to getting the measurements, and, at some sites, replace outdated equipment.
Additional sites in the Skagit River watershed were on the team’s schedule over the weekend, including at Hart’s Pass in the upper, eastern reach of the Skagit River watershed.
“It’s really a key site up in this area,” Pattee said.
Hart’s Pass is the program’s highest-elevation site in the state, at about 6,500 feet. It’s one of several that require use of a helicopter in order to get in the necessary equipment.
At a lower 3,500 feet, at the monitoring site Thursday near Baker Lake, Pattee and Warbritton tromped through the brush. At a clearing, a worn sign indicates it’s part of the federal snow survey.
There, Warbritton climbed a tower to decommission an outdated temperature-taking antenna and scaled a two-story wooden enclosure to install a replacement device.
While the site was warm, green and lush under blue skies that day, Pattee said winter snow reaches depths there well exceeding his own height. The Natural Resources Conservation Service team visits in the winter only if the data stops transmitting.
As the remaining snowpack monitoring sites are shored up this month, Pattee is hoping the region gets relief this winter from the hot, dry summer that came on quickly and left drought in its wake.
“It’s such an anomalous year,” he said. “We had excellent snowpack, then it’s like somebody reached over and turned off the spigot … turned the temperature up and stoked the fire.”
The snowpack monitoring team is still seeing the impacts in the field.
Maintenance of four sites in Eastern Washington is blocked by wildfires — the worst interference from fires the program has seen during Pattee’s nearly 30 years on the job. The landscape is also notably dry and brown.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of brown pine needles on the ground along the road,” Pattee said of a recent site visit in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “A year like this there just isn’t enough moisture, and the trees are sure stressed.”