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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s snowpack is solid this year, but climate trends still worry experts

While the early-season snow totals in Washington have surpassed historic normal levels, there are still several variables that could affect water flows in the region's rivers and lakes this summer.   (Shutterstock)
While the early-season snow totals in Washington have surpassed historic normal levels, there are still several variables that could affect water flows in the region's rivers and lakes this summer.  (Shutterstock)

Close your eyes and imagine the first warm weekend this year, when you dust off the paddleboard or kayak and float out onto the Spokane River.

Now, look outside at the blanket of snow that frustrated you once again on your daily commute last week.

The two scenes are polar opposites, but innately connected, because today’s snowfall is tomorrow’s water.

So strap on some snowshoes and enjoy it.

A healthy snowpack is one key factor in a healthy aquifer and river, which provide the region with recreation, water and power, according to local experts.

The Spokane River is fed from Lake Coeur d’Alene, which captures water trickling down from the mountains and hills to Spokane’s north and east.

So far this year, the region’s winter snowpack is above average – a cause for hope, certainly – but numerous variables could throw off what has been a productive season.

And even if this winter is a successful one, climate experts warn, the Inland Northwest is on track to see less snow and more rain as climate change unfolds, imparting an untold number of impacts on our environment.

The strong snowpack this year “should not be a signal to anybody that we’re out of the woods for good,” said Kat Hall, restoration program director with The Lands Council.

The Spokane region entered Friday with a snow water equivalent – essentially the measure of snow if it all melted into water – nearly 20% higher than the median amount for this time of year over the past 30 years.

Still, it remains too early to count this winter as a win.

Snowfall numbers could fail to hold steady the rest of the winter, or temperatures could rise and bring rain, which would accelerate snowmelt. Spring and summer could see little precipitation or above-average temperatures that melt even a healthy snowpack too quickly.

Because when it comes to the snowpack, timing is everything.

The region’s ecosystem is set up, experts say, for a solid snowpack and a slow, steady drawdown into the summer.

“The idea is for that (snow) to melt slowly over the springtime so there is controlled flow feeding into our springs and river,” said Kara Odegard, the Spokane City Council’s manager of sustainability initiatives.

But that’s changing, and Spokane is not alone in facing this shift. A study published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment last October estimated that the snow water equivalent across the Western United States will decline by about 25% by 2050.

The consequence, the authors wrote, will be “cascading hydrologic changes to the water–energy balance” that “directly impacts water management.”

As temperatures warm, climate models suggest that an increasing amount of precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. With warmer springs, snow that accumulated in the winter will more quickly melt.

That change will disrupt the delicate balance between mountain snow, the Spokane River and its tributaries.

“You’re not archiving that water as snow so that it’s running out as cold water in July,” said Spokane Riverkeeper Executive Director Jerry White Jr.

A snowpack that starts small or melts too quickly can result in higher water flows in the winter and lower water levels in the spring and summer, an evolution that has numerous ecological, recreational and economic impacts.

As an example, White points to the region’s iconic redband trout, which require cool shallow water in which to lay and hatch their eggs. The river’s health is also key to ongoing efforts to bring once-common anadromous fish like salmon back upriver to Spokane.

Lower river flow, White said, “puts the entire aquatic ecosystem at risk.”

In its analysis, the Spokane Climate Project found “the timing and severity of changes to the flow of the Spokane River are likely to have a detrimental impact on habitat for native Redband trout, summer recreational opportunities for boaters and anglers, and the general aesthetic value that the Spokane River provides to our community and its visitors.”

For six months out of the year, the Spokane River’s flow is set by purely natural factors. When the snow is mostly or completely melted, Avista closes the gates at its Post Falls dam, which sits nine miles from the mouth of Coeur d’Alene Lake.

From then until shortly after Labor Day, what most significantly affects Avista’s power generation – about 200 megawatts worth across Avista’s six dams on the Spokane River – is rain, not snow.

“Even though the snowpack, it’s really nice to have it now, what matters is when we get that rainfall in terms of power generation,” said Patrick Maher, Avista’s principal hydro operations engineer.

Under its federal license, Avista has to allow a minimum flow out of Lake Coeur d’Alene of 500 cubic feet per second. Amid a historic drought and high temperatures in 2021, Avista was forced to drop to that minimum.

“More and more every summer, we’re seeing where we’re hitting these minimums,” Maher said.

In 2015, Avista similarly reduced the flow, balancing the level of Lake Coeur d’Alene with the flow of the Spokane River, much to the chagrin of those who recreate on the river. On April 1 that year, snowpack in the Spokane basin was about 31% of its normal level.

Still, there remains a disconnect between the public’s love of the river and its interest in the snowpack.

A climate survey issued by the city of Spokane as it drafted a sustainability action plan in 2020 found that 85% of respondents said they “strongly agree” that maintaining the health of the river is important, but only 61% strongly agreed that reduced snowpack and snowfall are a current and future problem.

“People don’t have time or the energy or the focus to say ‘hey, I wonder why snow is important.’ I’m not surprised, and I don’t blame people,” said Odegard, who helped coordinate the city’s sustainability action plan adopted last year.

Aquifer

While experts are confident that a warming climate will affect ecology and recreation on the Spokane River, the effect on our drinking water supply is less clear.

The Spokane River and several other sources help recharge the Spokane-Valley Rathdrum Aquifer, which is the primary source of drinking water for the Spokane region and encompasses some 370 miles underneath parts of Idaho and Washington.

Even the most cynical of climate experts acknowledge the aquifer is plentiful, but they worry it won’t always be that way, particularly if the region endures significant or prolonged drought.

“We’ve been really fortunate to have this abundant and clean supply of water, but I don’t know that we’ve done a good job of understanding what a future might look like with increased need,” Odegard said.

That the Spokane Valley -Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer is so robust is a bit of a curse to local experts looking to warn Spokanites about the dangers of climate change.

In 2021, when Avista once again hit its flow minimum amid extremely high temperatures and dry weather, state officials noted the interplay between the river and aquifer.

“In dry years like this, the connection between the aquifer and the river becomes quite clear,” Patrick Cabbage, a Department of Ecology hydrologist, said in a statement. “Water use by people directly affects river flows. That’s why we hope people will use water wisely and efficiently.”

There are two increasing strains on the aquifer – a rising population in the Spokane region and a changing climate that makes water availability less reliable.

“If it gets to a point where there isn’t enough water, then questions arise as to who gets less and how do we figure out who gets less,” Hall said.

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