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Region’s snowpack lackluster

Warm temperatures cause early melting

El Niño isn’t doing much for the Pacific Northwest’s mountain snowpack.

Snow accumulations that broke records in parts of Washington during November are melting under an onslaught of mild January temperatures, which are 3 to 6 degrees warmer than average.

Snowpack conditions are at 84 percent of normal for this time of year for Washington. East of the Cascades, the snowpack is 56 percent of normal for the Spokane River basin; 79 percent of normal in the Yakima area; and 89 percent of normal in Walla Walla.

“El Niño is kind of kicking us in the heinie,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Mount Vernon. “All we can hope for is cooler temperatures.”

El Niño is a periodic warming of the waters of the tropical Pacific Ocean that typically brings above-average temperatures and drier conditions to the Northwest. Precipitation that normally falls in Washington, Oregon and Idaho gets diverted to the Southwest.

Warmer, drier conditions are good news for the region’s cities, which are saving money on their snowplow budgets. But the El Niño conditions could create water shortages this summer.

“In the West, we get about 70 to 80 percent of our surface water supply from winter snowpack,” Pattee said. “It’s what fills rivers and lakes, and brings supplies of fresh water to the ocean.”

Mountain snowpacks typically peak on April 1, making the next two months critical for the summer water season, he said. Forecasters are predicting the warmer, milder trend to continue through the end of March.

El Niño could also be a predictor for the length of the local ski season.

At Mt. Spokane, warmer temperatures have nibbled away a few inches of the snowpack since New Year’s Day, said Brad McQuarrie, the general manager.

With 57 inches at the base, “we’ve got plenty of snow to operate,” he said. “We feel fortunate; it could be a lot worse.”

But a few late storms would help replenish the snowpack, he said, and make sure skiers have snow-covered slopes to glide down this spring.

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