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So Far, El Niño Winter Brings Lessened Snowpack, Water Worries To Northwest

The Northwest’s snowpack isn’t as robust as water managers would like. At high-elevation near Mt. Adams, creases in the snowpack reveal where rain has run downhill.";s:

In the Northwest’s Cascades, there’s snow at high elevations, but it’s scored by vertical lines showing where rain has run downhill.

This warm El Niño winter in the region is worrying water managers and farmers. Many Washington and Oregon reservoirs aren’t filling up like they should, and snowpack levels are below average in many areas.  

In Oregon, snowpack near Mt. Hood is 50 percent of normal. A little better at 70 percent of normal statewide. Some reservoirs in Eastern Oregon are at, or below 38 percent.

In Washington, snowpack is around 79 percent of normal -- which could be bad news for spring crops.

Jeff Marti is a water resources expert with Washington’s Department of Ecology. He says even in a good year, there are fights between cities, fish, farms and forests.

“In a low-water year, those competitive forces just get that much more intense,” Marti said.

He says that when the snow level goes up into the higher elevations 1,000 feet day after day, it’s sort of like a pyramid -- less surface area to collect more snow.

Chris Lynch, is a hydraulic engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation’s Yakima office. The office manages water that largely irrigates the Kittitas County hay fields and Yakima Valley fruit orchards along with other crops. He says he’s not too worried just yet.

“But we’re keeping our eyes on what’s going on,” Lynch said. “I’m still holding out and not worried. But we are below average for our snowpack, and our total (precipitation) numbers are below average.”

Lynch says the storage in the five central Washington reservoirs he helps manage (Rimrock, Kachess, Keechelus, Cle Elum and Bumping) are at 91 percent of average, or 44 percent full. Lynch says Reclamation’s total water supply report for this area will released on March 7, he says.

When there isn’t enough water in a drought, junior water right holders -- like the Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Valley -- get rationed water.

But much of the Northwest is already feeling drought conditions. Ninety percent of Oregon is in either extreme or severe drought. In Washington, more than half the state is abnormally dry, mostly east of the Cascades.  

Katie Baltzor, a beef cattle rancher outside of Burns, in southeast Oregon, says she and her husband are very worried they’ll not have the snowpack runoff to irrigate their farm or the whole basin they live in, the Harney Valley.

“We’ll be praying for rain,” Baltzor said. “The only thing that could save us is if it rains enough for us to get a hay crop, even without us having a snowpack. And for the last 15 years, I can tell you there’s just two years that we didn’t have much of a winter, but we kept getting storm after storm, when we had a good hay crop.”

Washington and Oregon water managers say there is still some time for large snow storms to turn around the situation. But long-term forecasts from NOAA predict warmer-than-normal conditions through spring, so it’s unlikely.

As of late January 2019, much of the Washington snowpack was under historical averages.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.