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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Heat wave has little impact on Pacific Northwest snowpack

By Shari Phiel The Columbian

The recent spate of hot weather sent many Clark County residents scrambling to find a cool escape. However, the soaring temperatures had little impact on snowpack melt coming from the mountains.

“Most of our snow is already gone, so it’s not really impacting that seasonal snowpack,” Karin Bumbaco, deputy state climatologist at the University of Washington, said Tuesday.

There are exceptions, of course. Snow and even ice can still be spotted on some of the higher peaks, Mount Rainier, for example.

“Their meltdown is usually the latest in any given year,” Bumbaco said.

She said much of the state’s snow melted in May or June, which was as expected because snowpack levels were already below normal.

“That was one of the main triggers for the (drought) declaration throughout Washington,” Bumbaco said, adding cooler spring temperatures that stretched into June kept snowpack from melting off even faster and also helped stave off drought conditions.

“The snowpack stuck around a little longer than it would have otherwise if we’d had really early heat,” she said.

In April, the state Department of Ecology declared a statewide drought emergency, excluding Seattle, Tacoma and Everett.

According to a case study released Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issuing the declaration early — rather than waiting until the warmer summer months — allowed local cities, public utilities and counties to better prepare and apply for federal drought relief funds.

Washington defines drought as periods when an area’s water supply is currently below or forecast to fall below 75 percent of normal, and water users and the environment are anticipated to experience undue hardship as a result of these drought conditions. In April, the state’s water supply fell below that threshold.

Bumbaco said that may sound more shocking than it really is.

“That’s not talking about drinking water specifically. It can mean a few different things,” she said, such as a decline in snowpack, precipitation or other water sources.

Bumbaco said it’s not what’s happening this summer, but what happens over several summers that can signal a problem. Melting snow typically runs into creeks, streams and rivers, and occasionally makes its way into aquifers. If the snowpack melts early year after year, it could eventually impact local water sources.

“It would be more of a long-term trend that you would have to see before you would see an impact on aquifers,” Bumbaco said.

Clark Public Utilities draws its water primarily from underground aquifers, which are tapped by a series of wells. Spokesman Dameon Pesanti said the public utility’s water system won’t be affected by the recent runoff.

“The main aquifers we use are very shallow and near the river. It is my understanding that they recharge very quickly, relatively speaking,” Pesanti said Tuesday.

The larger issue for Clark Public Utilities is water consumption, Pesanti said. On warm days, when high temperatures reach into the 80s and 90s, water consumption can increase dramatically.

“In our more rural areas, where people have large yards, big gardens, small farms, they consume a ton of water to protect their crops. That can really pull down our reservoirs quickly, and it takes the system time to refill them,” Pesanti said.

Although the utility has never run out of water, or even come close to that, Pesanti said water engineers closely monitor the tanks “with more than a little consternation” during heat waves because the extra water use adds stress to the water lines.

“The pressure surges and fluctuations generate tremendous force,” Pesanti said.

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit