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Specialists Monitor Conditions To Predict Northwest's Water Supply


This is a state where drought has been the news for some time. Let's get a different view from a bit farther north. Skiers in the Pacific Northwest are the first to tell you how awful this year has been for snow. Snow levels are at record lows in Washington and Oregon. This could spell trouble for rivers that depend on snowmelt. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ashley Ahearn reports.

SCOTT PATTEE: All righty, off we go.

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

PATTEE: Thirty-three inches depth.

AHEARN: 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.

PATTEE: So you can see by that, we're about - have about 30 inches. And normally we would have 120 to 150 inches up here - not good.

AHEARN: Snow levels across Washington are about 70 percent below normal. In Oregon, things are worse. Snowpack there is more than 75 percent below normal levels, 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 completely 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.

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

HANSON: That doesn't give you the total picture. What's really important to us, in particular, is what is happening at the higher elevations throughout the Northern Rockies going into Canada.

AHEARN: Snow levels there are looking pretty good. And Hanson says that snowmelt will feed into reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers 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. Amy Snover is the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. She says that water supply systems vary throughout the region.

AMY SNOVER: But in many cases, the water managers who are paying attention to the conditions can actually change the way they manage their systems and try to catch that water as it's going down the river because it fell as rain instead of snow.

AHEARN: Water managers and others have called the warm, rainy winter this year anomalous. Snover agrees, but she says it's an anomaly worth looking at because this year's weather patterns are in line with climate change projections for the region.

SNOVER: When people ask me about this year and whether this is global warming, I say well, global warming looks like this. And I also say that we'll see a lot more of these more frequently as we go forward.

AHEARN: Water supplies for human consumption and hydropower are looking stable for now. But things could get pretty grim for farmers in the drier parts of the Northwest later this season. The governors of Washington and Oregon have declared drought emergencies in more than five counties, and the feds have committed to making drought aid available. Experts warn that some farmers' water could be shut off earlier in the season. The low snowpack could also be bad news for salmon. The fish rely on cold runoff from melting snow to supplement the rivers where they spawn in the late summer and early fall. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.