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Despite The Big Melt, Snowpack Is Average

Up here, you can hear toast browning in Spokane, potatoes growing in the Columbia Basin, a kid learning to water-ski on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

It’s the sound of water weeping from 5 feet of snow. The drips form rivulets that trickle into Cliff Creek, which plunges into Marble Creek, then into the St. Joe River and Lake Coeur d’Alene.

From the lake, the water flows into the Spokane River, turning Washington Water Power Co.’s turbines to light the city. Then it goes into the Columbia River, where it joins water from thousands of other ridges to turn more turbines and irrigate dryland farms.

The drips are coming earlier this year than water experts would prefer.

The snow on Roland Summit (elevation 5,180 feet) contained 31 inches of water last week.

But it was 2 inches of rain, not snow, that fell here last weekend. The rain was followed by shirt-sleeve weather. By Thursday, the snow’s moisture content had dropped to 28 inches.

That’s still about 95 percent of average for the 40 or 50 years that hydrologists have been keeping track, said WWP’s Gary Stockinger, who checked the water content on this Bitterroot Mountain ridge Thursday.

The reading is much higher than last year’s, when the water content was about 60 percent of average. By August, the Spokane River was a trickle and trout had retreated to the deepest holes.

“I would pretty much assure that we won’t have another year like last year,” said Stockinger, taking a break under a canopy of firs and spruce.

That assurance is based on a return to “normal-type weather from here on out,” Stockinger said.

Forecasters predict cold weather next week, with a chance of snow in the mountains Sunday.

“We’ll be getting out of early spring and slipping back into latewinter weather,” said Milt Maas of the National Weather Service. “Don’t take the snow tires off yet.”

Thursday’s cloudless sky was tough on the snowpack but a blessing to the snowpack monitors.

Dressed in jeans, light jackets and Sorels, Stockinger and partner Steve Esch drove rented snowmobiles to within a quarter-mile of the monitoring markers.

They come to the ridge and several others every year in late February and again in late March. When the snow is too powdery for snowmobiles, they ski. When the temperature is frigid, they make the trip anyway.

Thursday, the snow was packed enough to support Stockinger and Esch without snowshoes.

Stockinger plunged an eight-foot aluminum tube into the snow at each of the 10 check stations. The snow sample must show dirt, so Stockinger knows he’s hit bottom, but not so much dirt to throw off weight and depth measurements.

“It’s not that easy to do,” said Esch, after teasing Stockinger for having to making three attempts before getting a usable sample. “I can’t do it worth a damn.”

From these readings, Stockinger will use computers to estimate the amount of water clinging to this particular ridge. Other field trips will provide similar estimates throughout the Spokane River watershed.

And throughout the West, other hydrologists make similar trips to ridges where water drips into other rivers.