A Year Without Snow

Want to know what difference a few degrees can make as the climate warms? Look no further than the West’s critical and vanishing snowpack.

Chinook Pass

Credit: Photo: Washington Department of Transportation

Here in the Pacific Northwest, they’re calling it a “wet drought.” Unlike parched California, plenty of precipitation fell on Washington State this winter, including along the headwaters of the Dungeness River on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a river whose waters Nash Huber has been counting on since settling here nearly five decades ago. “In the best of years, water is a bit of a prayer and a dance,” the 74-year-old organic farmer says. “This year it’s a whole lot of praying.”

If precipitation is plentiful—and it was above average here last winter—then what’s the problem? Due to abnormally high temperatures (the kind predicted to become normal as the region warms), a lot of the water that fell on Washington’s Olympic Mountains and other peaks throughout the West last winter came not as snow but as rain. There wasn’t a ski season to speak of, and by early spring the naked mountains looked eerie, as if trees were losing their leaves in March.

Nash Huber, an organic farmer in the Dungeness Basin, Washington
Credit: Photo: Brooke Jarvis

Moisture that would usually stay trapped on frozen mountainsides, serving as a natural reservoir of fresh, cold meltwater to recharge streams and rivers throughout the long, dry summer, ran straight off to the Puget Sound and was gone. By August and September, when farmers and spawning salmon need it most, that moisture will be a memory.

“When we have snowpack as low as we had this year, I don’t care how much rain you dump on top of it—that spring and summer forecast is going to be low,” says Scott Pattee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that measures the water content of mountain snow.

In early May, as Huber transplants hundreds of squash plants from greenhouse to field, the Dungeness is still running strong. But the plants will need months of irrigation before harvest, and Olympic snowpack is just 1 percent of normal. At many monitoring sites, there’s simply nothing to measure. In the Yakima Basin, Washington’s vast inland cornucopia fed by water from the Cascades, farmers are already drawing down limited reservoirs, draining water a full two months before they usually would.

Overall, as the wet season comes to a close, snowpack across Washington is less than a fifth of what it should be. With months of dry season still to come, Governor Jay Inslee has already declared a statewide emergency.

* * *

In the Dungeness Basin, snowpack hasn’t been anywhere near this low since record-keeping began in the 1930s. Locals say it feels like a crazy anomaly, a situation so far from normal that no one has any idea how to plan for it.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Gary Smith, a third-generation Dungeness dairy farmer and the president of the irrigation association of which Huber is a shareholder; he says he’ll be surprised if there’s still water available for irrigation by mid-July or August. That’s bad news indeed for Huber’s rows of squash, along with the late-season carrots and brassicas that his business is known for.

But in the years to come, wet droughts like this are expected to become distressingly familiar. Across the West, readings are taken at snowy sites every April 1; since the 1950s, those readings have shown diminishing snow. In 2011 scientists who analyzed patterns of tree growth in the Rockies found that snowpack has been declining there since the 1980s at a more significant rate that at any time in the last millennium.

With months of dry season still to come, Washington governor Jay Inslee has already declared a statewide emergency.

And projections of future climate change show snowpack—which has historically provided some 75 percent of the West’s summer surface water—as one of the most significant casualties, with the spring melt beginning earlier and earlier and the West left to face dry summers without its icy safety net.

Though this year’s low snowpack in the Northwest is way outside of normal, some see it as a dry run (get it?) for what climate change will bring. Atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, whose weather blog is a Northwestern must-read, has taken to calling this year “a virtual climate stress test,” a natural simulation of what we can expect summers to look like in the future.

“Our winter and spring have brought weather conditions that are stunningly close to those expected to be normal by the end of the century,” he writes. “By the end of the summer, we will know whether the Pacific Northwest is ready to deal with global warming. And if not, what we need to do to prepare.”

The line between snow and rain is thin but absolute. We’re all about to find out how much difference a few degrees can make.

* * *

A few days after the squash are planted and watered, one of Huber’s antique tractors will take on a different duty: pulling a trailer stacked with hay bales and kids at the Grand Parade of the Sequim Irrigation Festival, the 120th annual celebration of the winter that changed everything for the Dungeness Basin.

Before 1895, the land that Huber now farms—which sits in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains—was a dry, brown prairie. A man known as D. R. “Crazy” Callen convinced the region’s people that they could dig irrigation ditches that would divert the reliable waters of the Dungeness into fields and farms. It’s said he used a half-full whiskey bottle as a level, that the surveyor was paid in potatoes, and that children helped stomp out the first ditch. Finally the first headgate was opened, the water poured into fields, and the basin transformed into a rich dairy region.

Nowadays, the snow that falls in the mountains flows down the Dungeness into more than 170 miles of ditches and pipe, transforming thousands of acres into lush, green farm- and rangeland.

Upper Dungeness River
Credit: Photo: brewbooks/Flickr

Over the years, agriculture has been replaced by retirement housing as the region’s biggest economic driver, and the Irrigation Festival has come to be more about carnival games, the scholarship pageant, and the strongman competition than actual agriculture or irrigation. (“That’s kind of what’s happened to a lot of rural life,” laments Huber.) But the festival, the oldest in Washington, still carries Callen’s words—“water is wealth”—as its slogan.

Even today, few here can forget how dependent they are on the Dungeness. Water-use reforms designed to protect the three species of threatened salmon that spawn in the river have led to dramatic conservation measures. In one part of the basin, all new construction must pay fees to fund mitigation efforts to offset whatever water is used from the river; in another area, new construction can’t get water rights at all. Irrigators have to cut back their use by percentages when the river gets low. It’s never yet hit the agreed-upon flow limit at which they have to stop altogether, but, says Smith, “This will be the first year that we’ll test that minimum.”

Water management is doubly hard because salmon need the river flowing strong just when farmers do—in late summer, when it’s already lowest, and when diminishing snowpack will have the largest effect. Most years there’s still water from high-elevation snow recharging the river until August, when flows taper off; this year, says Scott Chitwood, natural resources director for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, “we can expect August-type flows, I’m thinking, in June.”

Credit: Photo: Michael Jefferies/Flickr

By the time 500 threatened Dungeness Chinook salmon return to spawn in August and September, there may not be enough water for them to swim upstream, or enough underwater habitat to support adults and juveniles.

Even if the fish can make it upriver—the tribe is considering using sandbags to create deeper channels in difficult areas and may even transport salmon in trucks if they have to—the dearth of cold snowmelt will mean the water is much warmer than usual and will therefore hold less dissolved oxygen. Fish will be stressed and more susceptible to toxins and pathogens; dead fish in the river reduce oxygen levels even more, potentially triggering a domino effect that could kill the fry of successful spawners.

It doesn’t help that this year, while the river will be lowest, there’s a forecast of the largest return of pink salmon—as many as 1.2 million—in 60 years.

* * *

Across the West, both natural and human-made systems depend on the slow accumulation and release of water. When the snows fail, those systems get thrown out of whack. Animals and plants depend on seasonal regularity in their food and water supplies and in the temperatures of rivers. Shellfish depend on an influx of cold water throughout the summer. Rain from intense winter storms runs off quickly, before it can effectively recharge aquifers, and increases the risk of flooding and landslides. It also gathers more dirt and pollution—car oil, fertilizers and pesticides, animal waste, you name it—which flow into streams, rivers, and seas to cause algae blooms and disease.

Reservoirs can’t hold large quantities of water that descend at once, so capacities designed for predictable snowpack are suddenly inadequate. And hydropower depends on rivers that flow steadily; without that reliability, costs go up and power managers have to turn to fossil fuels to fill the gaps.

The line between snow and rain is thin but absolute. We’re all about to find out how much difference a few degrees can make.

In California, where snowpack has been waning dramatically with the drought, a study by the Pacific Institute found that the loss of hydroelectricity has already cost utility users $1.4 billion and caused an 8 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the last three years as the state turned to more expensive, dirtier energy sources.

While the National Climate Assessment cites diminishing snowpack as one of the most significant problems that the West will face in a warming future, it also notes that the shortage of snow will work in unfortunate concert with other impacts. For example, as the region loses its snowy bulwark against hot, dry summers, those summers are also expected to get hotter and drier. (Some projections show Northwestern summer precipitation decreasing by as much as 30 percent by century’s end). And days of extreme precipitation are expected to increase, adding to flooding and runoff problems in basins seeing increasingly more rain than snow.

Huber working on his farm
Credit: Photo: Brooke Jarvis

This future is certainly not the place Huber came to when he moved to the Dungeness Basin in 1968. “We’ve got a climate that can’t be beat,” he remembers thinking. “And we’ve got water—most of the time.” But this year he's scrambling to plan around a lack of water. He's reducing his vegetable planting by half, putting in more early-season crops, and shifting vegetable production to a couple of cold, less-than-ideal fields that have access to well water.

The snowpack crisis is also adding urgency to an expensive idea that local water managers have been throwing around: building a reservoir to fill in for the snow and glaciers they can no longer count on. It won’t fill all the needs, but at least it’s something—a way to hold on to some of the stability that’s melting away.

Right now, the National Climate Assessment concludes that areas of the Northwest where streams and rivers are dominated by snowpack have an enviable resilience to warming temperatures. “However,” the authors write, “as snowpack declines, the future sensitivity to warming is likely to increase in those areas.”

Snowpack, in short, is a buffer we will all sorely miss.

This article was made possible by a grant from the Jonathan & Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism.

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