Snow Worries

Washington’s low snowfall

Last winter’s snowfall was historically low, dealing a harsh blow to Washington’s snow-based ecology and economy. As the 2015-16 season kicks off, many locals are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

It’s cruel, really.

The Pacific Northwest, a region known for rain-soaked forests and perpetually snowy ski slopes, has been dealing with raging wildfires and blistering, sunny days. The very traits that have come to characterize the region are suddenly in short supply.

“Whither the weather?” is an unanswerable question as old as time, but there’s no denying that the winter of 2014-15 was awful for Washington — historically awful.

“We’ve been monitoring snowpack in Washington since 1934, and this past winter was the very worst snowpack season we’ve ever seen,” said Scott Pattee, a Mount Vernon-based water supply specialist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “The peak runoff from snowmelt should be in May or June, and it was in early February this year.”

Photo courtesy “Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest” ©2015 John Leszczynski, Used under a creative commons attribution license.

Photo courtesy “Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest” ©2015 John Leszczynski, Used under a creative commons attribution license.

You can really take your pick among the many sobering snow statistics.

For the entire 2014-15 winter, snowfall at Snoqualmie Pass totaled 104 inches, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. Going back to 1999, the next-lowest Snoqualmie snowfall total was 2004-05’s 214 inches — still more than double last year’s total.

According to Pattee, the snowiest of the NRCS’ 73 snow monitoring stations still reports some snowpack until early August. This year, the snowpack was completely
gone by June 10.

With all these dire signs piling up, Washington residents are grappling with a few key questions: What kind of impact is the lack of snow having on the state? What is the state doing about it? Most importantly, is low or no snow the new normal, and if so, what does that mean?

Snow Ecology

For anyone who’s ever experienced seemingly endless Puget Sound drizzle, it probably came as a surprise when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency on May 15.

For those attuned to the state’s delicate hydrology, though, Inslee’s announcement merely served as formal recognition of a long-awaited problem.

“Snowpack is critically important for us in that accumulated snowpack — and its spring and summer runoff — is the primary water supply for most of our river basins,” said Dan Partridge, communications manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. “Some 38 percent of our rivers and streams are at record-low flows because of lack of snowpack and little snowmelt to sustain stream flows.”

While more arid states like California can point to perpetually sunny skies as a drought culprit, Partridge noted that Washington actually experienced normal or above normal rainfall for most of the winter and spring.

“This is truly a ‘snowpack drought,’” Partridge said.

Thus far, Partridge said, the 2015 drought has endangered fish habitats and dried up wells and is on track to cause an estimated $1.2 billion in statewide crop loss. The state also has felt the brunt of indirect drought impacts, such as an uptick in the number and intensity of wildfires in drier-than-usual terrain.

As with any drought, the only real cure is a deluge of rain and/or snow, but Partridge said the state is doing everything it can to mitigate drought impacts in the meantime.

In early July, the Washington state Legislature approved $16 million in drought-relief funding for the next two years. Partridge said the funding will “help ensure reliable public water supplies, augment water supplies for farmers, and provide water to support stream flows for fish.”

Every little bit helps, but both Partridge and Pattee agreed that — no matter the amount of drought-relief funding — Washington will be in major trouble if snow and rain continue to be elusive. It’s that simple.

“One of our biggest concerns is that declining snowpack will become the ‘new normal’ for Washington,” Partridge said, adding that most climate scientists don’t expect that to happen until the 2050s.

Pattee, meanwhile, opined that the 2014-15 winter was “totally anomalous” and thus not a sign of “slow and steady” permanent climate change, beyond possibly offering an early preview of Washington’s climate future.

“We have to hope for a wet fall, good winter snow, and a wet spring — a bad winter in 2015-16 would be disastrous,” Pattee said. “I think we could see consequences new to Washington, like mandatory water restrictions and loss of junior and senior water rights, if things don’t turn around.”

Snow economy

As the operators of some of the region’s largest ski resorts can attest, Washington’s ski slopes have been particularly hard-hit by the lack of snow.

“Overall, the region was down by slightly more than 36 percent in visits last year, as compared to the average for the past 10 years,” said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association (PNSAA), a nonprofit trade association representing the regional ski industry. “In addition to resorts, retailers in the region also reported a decrease in sales last winter.”

According to Gifford, in low snow years, resorts have “employee layoffs commensurate with the lower visit levels and have reduced operating levels based on the snow coverage and terrain they can open.” He added that no PNSAA-member resorts permanently closed as a result of last winter, but several closed early.

At Crystal Mountain Resort in Enumclaw, director of sales and marketing Tiana Anderson said that snowfall and skier visits were both down roughly 40 percent in 2014-15, and the resort was open for 112 days last year compared to 147 days in 2013-14.

Photo courtesy “Panorama of the Pacific Northwest” ©2015 NASA’s Earth Observatory, Used under a creative commons attribution license.

Photo courtesy “Panorama of the Pacific Northwest” ©2015 NASA’s Earth Observatory, Used under a creative commons attribution license.

“It was a disappointing season, but we’ve put it behind us and are moving forward,” Anderson said. “We haven’t had two bad winters in a row, and if this coming ski season doesn’t turn out well, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.

“Last winter wasn’t the first warm winter we’ve had; they seem to happen roughly every 10 years and we plan for it,” she added. “It just depends which way the ball bounces. Sometimes it works out in our favor and other years it doesn’t.”

At Stevens Pass Mountain Resort in Skykomish, vice president of sales and marketing Chris Danforth said 2014-15 was the resort’s worst recorded year for snowfall — totaling only 184 inches — since the resort started keeping records in 1951.

“We were open for 87 days last season, and we have been averaging around 150 the last several years,” Danforth said. “In turn, our visits were down over 50 percent.”

Danforth said he has his fingers crossed for a rebound snowfall year, noting that when Stevens Pass received only 204 inches in 2004-05, the following winter brought a whopping 518 inches of snow to the pass.

“We are much like farmers, and our crop is snow,” Danforth said. “Some years we have a bountiful crop and we are rewarded financially, and some years, like last year, you have a bad crop. If you are in this business you better be prepared to weather a bad year or two.”

Danforth also noted that Stevens Pass has expanded into summer operations — offering a mountain bike park, chair lift rides, disc golf, and hiking while there’s no snow. Summer trail maintenance also allows the resort to safely open trails with less snow during the winter, he added.

Ultimately, Washington’s ski resorts are doing the same delicate dance as the state’s environmental agencies — altering operations and diverting resources in order to sustain the health of their businesses for as long as possible. When push comes
to shove, though, both entities are looking up at the sky, hoping for precipitation.

“It’s really hard to predict what the weather is going to do,” Danforth said. “We’re prepared to weather the storm (or lack thereof).”

Snow future?

With much of the American West mired in various stages of drought, the future of the region’s weather has become a multibillion-dollar proposition.

Unfortunately, long-term weather predictions are extremely unreliable and hotly debated. For example, forecasters are calling for an “El Niño” year starting in late 2015, which generally entails a warm and dry winter in the Pacific Northwest.

When asked about El Niño years, though, ski industry representatives and conservation workers had wildly divergent opinions about what such a year would mean for snow and temps.

“Wait and see” seems to be the only consensus on what’ll happen with the weather, which is frustratingly vague for Washington’s precipitation-dependent economy and ecology.

If nothing else, the severity of the consequences handed down by a single lackluster winter seems to demonstrate that Washington — in its current state — is ill-equipped to handle a continued pattern of such winters.

“Rain and snow are extremely important in Washington,” Pattee said. “If it’s a worst-case-scenario going forward, we’re really going to be in bad shape.”  

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