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Warm spring melting Washington’s snowpack while contributing to other problems

For snowpack watchers, what looked in March like a great recovery from the unprecedented drought of 2015 instead has turned into record melting through a warm April and May.

And where the snow has disappeared, its consequences are accumulating across the region. Among them:

▪ Crystal Mountain announced earlier in May that there will be no summer skiing season.

▪ Tacoma Public Utilities shut down its Lake Cushman hydroelectric dam to get the reservoir up to its Memorial Day target.

▪ The first large wildfire west of the Cascades appeared May 13 in Gold Bar, six weeks ahead of the first such fire of 2015.

▪ Stream levels in several areas already are at midsummer shallowness, raising concerns of another rough year for vulnerable migrating fish.

Now environment-watchers in several quarters say they hope the predictions hold for Washington’s weather entering a full-fledged La Nina condition — for the Northwest, a wet, cooler period that often follows an El Nino warming cycle — by midautumn. Or, ideally (to some), an earlier stop to the mounting costly troubles the melt has brought, even at the cost of clouding up sunny summer visions.

“It’s hard, because who doesn’t like nice weather?” said Teresa Scott, water resource policy director for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But in terms of what would be the best for fish and probably wildlife right now, a cooler summer would probably be better.”

Climate experts give a La Nina condition a 75 percent chance of developing by the end of the year, which could make for a snowy winter to come. Until that plays out, officials will be grappling with the effects of the snowpack that dissipated rapidly from April 1 measurements of 110 percent or more of several historical norms. By mid-May, it had fallen to below 50 percent of normal in many of the same places.

First, the good news: Mountain snow conditions still aren’t as bad as 2015, when much mountain land had gone bald by this point.

“There’s still snow up there, but it’s pretty patchy at this point,” said Ted Buehner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Seattle area forecast office. “There’s not a solid white snow cover.”

Buehner said that although the first months of 2016 brought enough precipitation to pass the yearly average by the end of March, warm and dry weather afterward melted away much of what fell as mountain snows.

Records that go back three decades don’t show another rate of snowpack loss like it, said Jeff Marti, an environmental planner with the state Department of Ecology.

“We hit April first, and then a switch flipped,” Marti said.

A report released in November by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group suggests that increasing feast-or-famine weather conditions — more intense precipitation, spaced further apart — are to be expected as Washington’s inheritance from global climate change.

Several sections of the state are looking at long-term ways to cope. Water-storage systems in Walla Walla and Yakima are edging toward expansion, and on the west side of the state, Forks officials might expedite new well drilling if last year’s late-summer water emergency repeats, Marti said.

Tacoma Public Utilities shut down one of its Cushman dam generators in Mason County on May 2 to help the snowpack-fed reservoir get to its settlement-required depth of 735 feet by Memorial Day, said Todd Lloyd, manager of resource operations. The system has enough power capacity to cope with missing the 18 megawatts that dam normally produces during May, he said.

“It’s been very dry, very warm,” Lloyd said, “and the flows that we have coming into Lake Cushman have been very low, especially (from) where the snowpack was.”

He said that at an ongoing rise of about 1.4 inches a day, the reservoir should be at standard depth for boating and other recreation by Memorial Day, but won’t pass it by much.

The vanished snows have cut into other outdoor fun as well. Kalela Robison, marketing assistant for Crystal Mountain, said the resort had hoped for a repeat of 2014, when it was open for summer skiing into mid-July.

“Geez, this unseasonably warm spring had other plans,” she said

Officials watched patches of rocks and dirt emerge this month and began switching operations over to summer gondola rides.

In more dire situations, fire watchers are watching and waiting to see if the lessened snowpack becomes a worsening factor for wildfire season.

Last summer’s drought left a lot of vulnerable, damaged timber in state forests, and a series of elements, including snowpack, rainfall and human acts, will determine how the summer goes, said Karen Arnold, assistant wildfire division manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

The May 13 Gold Bar fire started the large-fire season unexpectedly early, she said.

“If snowpack stayed around until June or July, that’d be great,” she said, “but it’s not going to happen, and it rarely does,” she said. “We’re not terrible. We’re not as bad as last year.”

She suggested homeowners aiming to burn off debris carefully consider their fire lines and water supplies first.

The state’s fish populations face their own problems from warmer weather and reduced snowfall, said Teresa Scott of the Fish and Wildlife Department. Rising water temperatures make fish susceptible to disease. In some places, streams have gotten so low growing fish can’t swim through shallow spots.

“I don’t know whether it’s a race, but we’re watching to see if flows get too low for juvenile migration before all of them have gone out,” she said.

She said water temperature patterns in some bodies are tracking with last year’s trajectory, which is ecologically troubling. Perhaps La Nina fixes that with an early midsummer arrival. Perhaps it doesn’t arrive then, or at all. Do not count Scott among those patient in her waiting, not after watching a beautiful, deep snowpack and record rains wash away so quickly.

“At this point, I’m not even looking at the fall,” she said. “I’m looking at next week, because things are changing that fast.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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