Northwest Fears Tinder-Dry Summer Seasonby Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2005
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Skies are blue and mountains are bereft of snow across the Northwest this year. And while many people might be reveling in the unexpected early spring, water managers in several states are crossing their fingers and hoping winter will make another appearance.
It's all about staving off the dreaded 'd' word: drought.
"Every day that goes by that we don't get snow, we just fall further behind," said Ted Day, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Boise, Idaho.
Authorities are bracing for a seventh year of drought in Montana, where the mountains are so bare that peaks will need three times the usual snowfall between now and when the spring runoff begins just to reach average levels.
In Idaho, snowpack is at about 50 percent of average with the lone bright spot - albeit a rather dim one - being Eastern Idaho at 75 percent of average. Parts of the state already have endured five straight years of drought.
Conditions are even grimmer in Washington, where snowpack stands at just 16 percent of average in some places. Spokane saw the driest February since record-keeping started in 1881.
In famously rainy Seattle, joggers in shorts crowd waterfront sidewalks to enjoy the unusual sunshine, while the almost snow-free peaks of the Olympic Mountains loom across Puget Sound.
The Northwest hasn't been this parched in the winter in nearly three decades, raising concerns about early wildfires and low streamflows, which could limit the hydropower supply, reduce water for irrigators and threaten endangered fish.
Water managers looked to 1977 - the worst drought on record in Washington state - to find the last time winter precipitation was this sparse. That year, though, conditions turned around somewhat with a wet spring.
"We're kind of reduced to crossing our fingers and hoping something like that happens again this year," Day said.
Trouble is, the long-term forecast for spring calls for more of the same: above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation.
Meteorologists blame a weak El Nino, which brought mild weather to the Northwest in January and February and sent precipitation that usually falls in the region to the north and south.
Snowpack in Canada is closer to normal at 90 percent of average in most places. Snowpack and rainfall also have been heavier in California, Utah and Nevada, leaving Washington, Idaho, Montana and parts of Oregon as the odd states out, Day said.
"Right now, the way things look, I don't think there's any doubt we will have reduced water to deliver this year," said Jack Carpenter of central Washington's Kittitas Reclamation District, which serves about 2,500 landowners.
"There's absolutely nothing we can do at this point in time," Carpenter said. "We know we will have a reduced bucket, we just don't know if this is going to be the worst-ever bucket we will receive."
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to let water rights holders in Eastern Washington know this week how much water they will have to share this summer.
Meanwhile, water managers across the Northwest are watching conditions closely.
Projected streamflows at The Dalles on the Columbia River will be about 66 percent of normal, according to Mike Hansen, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.
The federal power marketing agency based in Portland, Ore., supplies nearly half the electricity in the Pacific Northwest, most of it from a system of federal dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Bonneville still believes it can meet all of its power demands and responsibilities for salmon recovery by taking a conservative approach to buying and selling power, Hansen said. However, reduced streamflows also mean less surplus power to sell, which could hurt consumers' prices.
"The good side is market prices are remaining fairly strong. The hope is that even though we'll have less to sell, we'll get a better price to sell," Hansen said. "However, one only has to look out the window to see that things only continue to get worse."
The low snowpack also raises concerns about wildfires this summer, because drier big fuels, such as fallen trees, can mean more intense fires, said Rex Holloway, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest region.
A bigger concern, though, is the weather during the fire season, he said.
"We can have a very dry landscape, dry forests, but if we don't have the fire starts, then we'll be OK," Holloway said.
Mike Hayes, a climate impacts specialist at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., said most states in the Northwest are prepared for a drought emergency if necessary, even if the remaining weeks of winter stay dry.
"There is an opportunity to make up some of that deficit, but from what I'm hearing from forecasters, the pattern seems to be locked into place," Hayes said. "I think people throughout the Pacific Northwest really need to be aware of what they're going to be doing with water this year."
Drought Monitor: www.drought.unl.edu/dm/
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