Last year’s snow drought was extraordinary by every measure, wreaking havoc in a region dependent on snowpack. What is to come this water year is a crucial focus for many, whether they manage fire, timber, cattle, hydropower or fish.

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After a deep drenching rain, life in the Seattle area is returning to normal. But it will be a long time before anyone around here forgets the winter that wasn’t.

The region’s ecology depends on snowpack for everything from drinking water to generating electricity to helping salmon migrate from freshwater streams to saltwater and back.

From scrambling to slake the region’s thirst and buying power to keep the lights on, to a devastating year for endangered sockeye salmon and a wildfire season of unprecedented devastation, the 12-month water year that ended last month was one for the history books.

Seattle City Light, which gets 89 percent of its electricity from hydropower, found itself buying power to satisfy customer demand in the early spring, when the utility is usually selling surplus electricity from the abundant freshet.

That followed a warmer winter that saw customers not needing as much electricity for heat. The two together punched a $30 million hole in the utility’s budget, plugged by drawing down its reserve account.

It looks like City Light will get through 2015 without surcharges on customers’ bills. “But we are pretty close,” said utility spokesman Scott Thomsen. “What happens in 2016 is going to be largely dependent on the water we see.”

At Seattle Public Utilities, the punishing drought forced unprecedented steps.

On Oct. 27, 2015, the Masonry Pool Reservoir at the Cedar River Masonry Dam, had a water elevation about 1,529 feet, about 5.1 feet below its long term average. Reservoirs have since gained about 8 inches of rain. (Courtesy of Ralph Naess / SPU)

“This was the toughest year we have ever had,” said Paul Faulds, water-supply manager there. So little snow fell in the mountains that for the first time the utility refilled its reservoirs in the spring entirely with rainwater, not runoff from snowmelt, Faulds said.

When even the rain wouldn’t come, the utility resorted to pumping from wells it rarely taps to meet demand. Customers helped, voluntarily saving more than 1 billion gallons of water since the utility in August requested customers to cut their water use by 10 percent.

Faulds and his team also began storing two months earlier than usual, and rushed a new $16 million pump into service. The utility taps reservoirs high in the Cascade Mountains to provide drinking water to 1.4 million Seattle-area customers and sustain salmon runs protected under the Endangered Species Act and relied on to meet tribal treaty obligations.

Those reservoirs are nearly full now, after close to eight inches of rain fell in the last week of October. Mountain reservoir levels zoomed to 90 percent of normal, up from 66 percent just the week before.

Most of Western Washington was above normal for precipitation in the first month of this water year, with 118 percent of normal rainfall sopping the Puget Sound lowlands, according to the National Weather Service.

Sockeye hit hard

The question going forward isn’t so much about rain, but snow.

Last winter was starkly unusual, with peak runoff in much of the state coming as early as February, rather than June, said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist in the Mount Vernon office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s because most of the region’s precipitation fell as rain instead of snow.

By summer, with so little snowpack to feed them, stream flows were at record lows.

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“It was totally anomalous, it was way out there, totally outside the realm of anyone’s thought process,” Pattee said. “We call it a snow drought because we actually had normal precipitation; we just didn’t get that snow. It really drives home the point of how important that whole mountain snowmelt is to our whole ecology.”

Even in Forks, a town synonymous with rain, there were water restrictions as wells usually recharged with ground water and snowmelt sputtered.

Migrating fish saw a terrible year as adult salmon came back to warm water and low flows — a lethal combination.

“This year sockeye took a beating; there is no other way to say it,” said Ritchie Graves, chief of the Columbia hydropower branch of NOAA fisheries West Coast region.

The water conditions killed about half the estimated 500,000 sockeye entering the Columbia last summer, including most of the returning endangered Snake River run. As a last resort, fish managers scooped 600 adult sockeye out of captive broods in Manchester, Kitsap County, and trucked them to the Stanley Basin for spawning, some 700 miles away.

“We have never seen losses like that,” Graves said. “The key question is if it’s a one-in-50-year event, these fish will shrug this off. If it’s a one-in-five-year event, it’s a significant impact.”

“Dress rehearsal”

What is to come this water year is the question on everyone’s mind, whether they manage fire, timber, cattle, hydropower or fish.

The forecast this winter is for a strong El Niño, with a 50 percent chance of above-normal temperatures, which again would push the snow line upslope.

“We consider climate change a threat,” Thomsen, of City Light, said. “The mountains aren’t holding the water we need, with snow as the battery. How do you manage around that?

“We go into this water year in a less healthy condition. The reserve account is used up. It hasn’t touched customers yet, but going into next year, who knows?”

Nick Bond, climatologist for the state of Washington, said last year was a fluke, coming on top of long-term climate warming. “That was an extreme climate event. It is not the new normal,” he said.

It was, however, a look into the future when more precipitation is expected to come as rain as temperatures on average rise. “It was more of a dress rehearsal, a preview of what is going to be more common in the future,” Bond said.

Long-term predictions currently are for 75 to 80 percent of normal snowpack this year — far better than the 20 to 30 percent that came last year, he said.


Related video: The Northwest’s snowpack drought

Thousands of Yakima basin farmers will be short of water this summer, in a year marked by a stunning lack of snow to feed a river that sustains crops worth more than $2 billion annually. Read more. (Steve Ringman & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)    

“It is possible we will have another meager one — the prediction is for a 10 percent chance,” Bond added. “You don’t plan for anything like that, but you have to realize it is possible.”