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The price of a warm winter? Just wait until summer

Sun., March 21, 2010

We’ve all heard the expression, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. I guess that’s true concerning the weather.

While most folks have been enjoying this relatively snow-free winter and above-normal temperatures, there is a future price to pay. Low snowpack in the mountains of both Washington and Idaho are going to adversely affect summer water supply. In turn, summer water recreational activities, agricultural irrigation, wildfire danger, and even drinking water supply will be affected.

According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, snowpack across Washington State has receded to about 70 percent of average, down from 74 percent one month ago. In Idaho, the situation is similar, with snowpack ranging from 55 to 75 percent of average. Locally, in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, precipitation is now more than an inch below normal for the year.

While moderate to strong El Niño episodes have proven to have a defining influence on winter weather patterns in the Northwestern U.S., correlations with springtime weather patterns are harder to pin down. A cool and wet early spring would serve not only to replenish some of the mountain snowpack, but help delay the melting of what little is up there.

Unfortunately, computer models continue to indicate above normal temperatures across the Northwest for the upcoming month of April. Below normal precipitation is still forecast for the western half of Washington, but could go either way – either above or below normal – across Eastern Washington and North Idaho. A good dose of April showers would definitely be helpful to area lawns and gardens.

Of course nature always like to have balance, so while drier and warmer weather have been the rule in the northwest, the opposite has been the story in other parts of the U.S. The bitter cold and heavy snows that plagued the nation’s midsection this winter are having repercussions heading into early spring as well. Remember the record floods that plagued folks along the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota last year?

It looks like the fight is on again for this year. The north-south oriented Red River (which flows northward) is prone to flooding each year, but usually the flooding is minor. During spring, thawing begins at the southern section and works its way northward. Ice jams can then pose a problem as the water flows toward colder regions and encounters ice. Chunks of ice are carried northward and build upon each other, slowing and even damming the water flow.

If you add a period of heavy rains to the picture, the result is some serious flooding. This past week, volunteers in towns like Fargo and Moorhead along the river valley, have answered the call to fill one million sandbags. The river is forecast to crest 20 feet above flood stage.

Michelle Boss can be reached at


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