What a Record-Low Snowpack Means For Summer In The Northwest

Mar 9, 2015

Ask any Northwest skiers and they’ll tell you it’s been a bad year for snow.
They’re right. Snow levels are at record lows for Washington and Oregon.
But it’s not time to hit the panic button yet.

Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the National Resources Conservation Service, checks snow levels at Stevens Pass ski resort in Washington's Cascade Mountains.Credit Ashley Ahearn / EarthfixEdit | Remove

Scott Pattee: "Alrighty, off we go."

Scott Pattee screws together some aluminum tubes and walks over to stick them into the snow near Stevens Pass Ski Resort.

Pattee’s a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service here in Washington. He’s been monitoring snow levels to predict water supplies for more than 20 years. He says this is one of the worst years he’s seen. The Cascade mountains around us are mostly brown and green, not white.

Scott Pattee: “So you can see by that we have about 30 inches and normally we would have 120-150 inches, up here. Not good.”

Snow levels in some parts of Western Washington are more than 90 percent below normal. Statewide, average snow level is 71 percent below normal.

In Oregon, things are worse - The state has received less than ¼ of its normal snowfall, with the driest spots in the southern and southeastern part of the state.

But here’s the weird thing - and the reason Scott Pattee and other water managers aren’t freaking out yet - Total precipitation is at or above normal for most of the Northwest. It’s just coming as rain, not snow.

Mike Hanson: "We’re doing just fine at the moment."

Mike Hanson is a spokesperson for Bonneville Power Administration. It manages 31 federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and provides about ⅓ of the electricity for the Northwest. He says that as bad as things might look out your window or on your local ski slope,

Mike Hanson: “That’s not really an indication of the total picture. What’s really important to us is what is happening at the higher elevations throughout the northern rockies going into Canada.”

Snow levels there are looking pretty good, and Hanson says that snowmelt will feed into BPAs reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake throughout the season.

Many communities in the region depend on snowmelt to supplement water supplies during the dry months - especially those that get their water directly from snow-fed rivers and don’t have reservoirs to store water.

That’s not the case in Seattle. City water managers say their reservoirs have enough capacity to meet demand throughout the dry season, and they’re keeping them full in preparation.

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