Balmy weather that has stripped the Cascades of its customary winter cloak of snow could take a toll on apples, salmon and more than a million...

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Balmy weather that has stripped the Cascades of its customary winter cloak of snow could take a toll on apples, salmon and more than a million water consumers by summer.

State climatologist Philip Mote yesterday warned that most basins in the mountain range have a snowpack just 20 percent to 30 percent of average. In more than half of areas measured, the January snowpack is lower than it has been in 28 years, he said.

Mote said that at one high-altitude monitoring station near Glacier Peak, the temperature last week was 20 degrees above average and that snow is melting at 6,200 feet — something he doesn’t remember ever seeing midseason.

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“We are in a pretty deep hole, and the chances of recovering are pretty slim,” Mote said. “It can be done. But it’s like being 20-0 down halfway through a football game.”

Should the trend continue, it could lead to a summer of reduced river flows, irrigation rationing in parts of Eastern Washington and low water levels in reservoirs that slake the thirst of Seattle-area consumers.

Mote said he worries that El Niño-type conditions this winter tilt predictions toward a continuing trend of warmer, drier weather. That diminishes the chances of a big snow recovery, he said.

But many people who are closely monitoring snow levels remain hopeful that cooler weather in February and March will redeem the situation. Seattle Public Utilities even remains in a flood-protection mode, allowing water to spill from its nearly full reservoirs.

Most areas in the Cascades have been getting 70 to 80 percent of normal precipitation, but warm temperatures have often turned it into rain, which has sometimes washed away the snow base instead of adding to it.

That has been a big problem at ski fields, which have endured a rough start to the season. Stevens Pass, Mt. Baker Ski Area and The Summit at Snoqualmie were all closed yesterday because of a lack of snow. Crystal Mountain was advertising three of nine lifts open for some skiing on “wet, packed snow” until Wednesday, when Crystal closed indefinitely due to a lack of snow.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Many of the 500 or so workers at Stevens Pass ski area have been idled from an acute lack of snow. Some are still collecting pay checks; many have gone on vacation to ski or snowboard. Matt Gormley cruises along the top of the pipe that is desperately in need of more snow.


Guy Lawrence, The Summit’s marketing director, acknowledged that many staff have taken a few days absence to find snow in other states. He said just 15 people are working, from a possible 1,400 full-time and casual people on the books.

“I can think of a lot of words to describe the season, but frustrating is one that you can print,” Lawrence said. “But we are really optimistic. February and March are our strongest months, and other seasons have had similar themes to this one. Looking back, history suggests we should have a better second half.”

That is what Jim Hazen, the executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association, is hoping for. He said that there still is plenty of time for the snowpack to improve.

“Certainly a low snowpack creates huge implications for irrigated agriculture,” he said.

Hazen said the $3 billion-a-year fruit economy in this state would be particularly affected in some areas in the Yakima Valley and Chelan County, which particularly rely on the snow for water. He said it could result in lower crop yields as farmers concentrate on conserving water and saving trees for future years.

Daniel Basketfield, a senior water-resources engineer at Seattle Public Utilities, said that snow levels in the Cedar River basin are just 12 percent of average, and that levels in the Tolt River basin are only 25 percent of average. The utility provides water to 1.2 million customers as well as to some other municipalities.

Should the low levels continue, the utility could move to close the winter spillways earlier than usual and begin conserving water, Basketfield said. However, such a move is premature now with two months of potential snow accumulation remaining, he added.

In the summer of 2001, the city of Seattle asked consumers to voluntarily conserve water when reservoir levels became low. Mandatory rationing was last imposed in Seattle in 1992.

Mote said that the reduced snowpack also could take a toll on salmon and other river dwellers that typically rely on a big spring thaw to keep rivers cool and to flush them out to sea.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com