You might think that the record-breaking snowfall so far this winter in Washington state would ensure there will be plenty of water to avoid drought when it melts this spring and summer.
You would be wrong.
The federal government says the state’s mountain snowpack is just average so far this winter.
“For all those residents who have been digging out their driveways and sidewalks for the past month, the notion of an ’average’ snowpack must seem like pure hydrological nonsense,” said Scott Pattee, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which estimates whether the state will have enough water to get through the dry summer months.
“But the numbers don’t lie,” Pattee said. “The depth and water content of the snowpack statewide is just about average.”
The NRCS measures the depth and water content of snow at more than 100 locations around the state. That data is used to estimate how much water will flow down rivers and streams and into reservoirs as the snow melts. A shortage of water has been a regular problem in recent summers.
Pattee said the heavy snowfall in December dramatically improved water prospects for this summer. Before the big storms, the snowpack was only 24 to 40 percent of normal around the state.
“In just a few weeks, we’ve closed the gap and now stand at 106 percent statewide,” Pattee said.
Spokane was hit by a record snowstorm in December that dropped more than 6 feet of snow on the city. But the snowpack that feeds the Spokane River Basin is just at 97 percent of normal, Pattee said.
“Typically, 50 percent of the total annual snow accumulation has fallen by mid-January,” Pattee said. But he noted this season has been atypical.
The National Weather Service has issued a report on the snowstorms that nearly paralyzed Spokane in recent weeks.
After a dry beginning, heavy snowfall began in mid-December, with “an incredible” 23 inches falling on Dec. 17-18, the agency said. More storms followed in quick succession, including 6 inches on Christmas Eve. In subsequent days, winds gusting to 50 mph caused massive snowdrifts and closed roads. The last major storm was Jan. 4, dropping 5 to 12 inches in the region.
The storms set a 24-hour record for Spokane of 19.4 inches of snow on Dec. 17-18, breaking the record of 13 inches set Jan. 6-7, 1950. The city’s snowiest month ever was December, when 61.5 inches fell, breaking the record of 56.9 inches set in January 1950.
Spokane typically averages only four days a year in which snowfall totals 3 inches or more, but this winter has already seen nine such days in a span of just 20 days.
The typical winter in Spokane has about 48 inches of snow. Total snowfall so far this winter is 80.3 inches. Last winter, the second snowiest on record, saw 92.6 inches fall on the city, but the two winters before that saw just 27 and 34 inches.
By the way, the grumpy old-timers are right that this winter isn’t that big a deal. The most brutal winter month in Spokane history is still January 1950, which not only saw more than 56 inches of snow, but subzero temperatures for 17 days. This winter has only had six nights with subzero temperatures.