Dry Spell Looms for Summerby Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 12, 2003
On the verge of what appears to be another water-short summer in the Northwest, a well-respected researcher is releasing a report today that says the region's snowpack already is feeling the heat of a long-term warming trend.
Early snow melts in recent years have "relentlessly reduced the water content" of the Northwest's spring snowpack, straining water supplies for people and farms during the typically dry summers, University of Washington researchers found.
"I was surprised at the size of the result," said Philip Mote, research scientist with the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Group at UW. "There's already a clearer regional signal of warming in the mountains than we expected."
Mote's research, which will be presented today at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting in Long Beach, Calif., shows that from 1950 to 1992 the amount of water held in the snowpack declined steadily across the Northwest and by as much as 60 percent in some places.
Mote is widely known for his predictions that global warming will significantly alter Northwest water supplies in coming decades. Today's study is significant because it shows the effect already is being felt.
"If it comes to pass as he says it's going to ... it could have some big impacts on the Pacific Northwest," said Pat McGrane, reservoir operations manager for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boise.
"It has a lot of long-term implications" for salmon recovery and flood control, McGrane said.
Mote linked the decline in snow-held water to earlier melting of the snowpack, which irrigators sometimes call the "sixth reservoir" of the Yakima Basin because it's arguably more important than any of the five man-made reservoirs that water the valley.
"If we don't have that sixth reservoir and the water goes off early in the season similar to what we are seeing this year, we are going to have some problems," said Steven George with the Yakima River Basin Commodity Commission. "Ultimately, we need a way to store more water."
The Yakima Basin already suffered a potentially significant water loss this winter because of warm rains that melted mountain snow at the start of February.
The Yakima's status should come into clearer focus Thursday when the Bureau of Reclamation releases its first water supply forecast. Official estimates will set the tone for farms rationing, fish recovery efforts and Kennewick Irrigation District lawns, which are watered from the Yakima.
Bureau officials are likely to be very cautious with the first forecast because so much depends on whether the snow melt is captured in reservoirs.
But early signs are bad.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service shows water held in the snowpack far below average for the entire Cascade Range. "Even though parts of the Northwest experienced their second consecutive wet week ... the real story has been the warmth of this winter," according to the most recent agency report.
"Early runoff does not bode well for sustaining water storage levels into summer and, in effect, the relatively high stream flow readings may serve as a precursor for hydrological drought later this summer," the conservation service said.
Proponents of a massive reservoir in the Black Rock Valley north of Sunnyside are planning to use the uncertain water outlook to support their case for moving ahead on dam-building plans that would more than double the amount of water storage in the Yakima Basin.
"There is a problem and we are (proposing) a solution," said Charlie de La Chapelle, co-chairman of the Yakima Basin Storage Alliance. "It underscores our need, and I think we have to get going."
The storage alliance is planning a news conference after the bureau's water forecast meeting Thursday to report on status of efforts to get $2 million from the federal government and $4 million from the state to move ahead with pre-construction studies."
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