By Matthew Stephens
Franklin Connection 

Low snowpack could bring water deficit

Could impact ag industry

 

Last updated 1/17/2024 at 12:11pm

SPRAGUE – The current water supply outlook for Washington is an early assessment, but it shows little snowpack through December.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program hydrologistMatt Warbritton, the snowpack is significantly lower-than-average, but overall precipitation is only slightly below average, thanks to December rainfall.

Because of the strong El Nino events this year, the region has seen warmer temperatures with more rain, Warbritton said.

"Early in December, we had some atmospheric river events that brought some snow to the higher elevations," Warbritton said. "Then storms brought warmer temperatures with rain.

"The rain essentially melted off any potential snowpack from the first storm, even at higher elevations."

On Dec. 8 a weaker system moved through and then there was little precipitation after that, according to the Washington Water Supply Outlook Report released this month.

The same report shows that statewide snowpack is near its lowest point on record since 1985.

There is a 54% chance that El Nino will become a "historically strong event" this year, the report said.

As of Jan.1, most of the state was in a moderate-to-severe snow drought, but the most recent system may impact the outlook through the rest of winter, the report said.

The Spokane Basin snowpack is currently 47% below the median. In December, it was recorded at 56% under median.

"This assessment is very early in the season," Warbritton said. "And anything can happen. But if current trends continue, we could see a water deficit in many areas across the state."

The report also assesses moisture levels in the soil.

Soil readings in parts of Eastern Washington show the soil as drier-than-normal for this time of year. If current conditions continue, that can directly impact the amount of snowmelt that will reach streams during the spring runoff, according to Warbritton.

"If the soil is dry, it will absorb some of the runoff," Warbritton said. "That means water levels in streams and rivers will be lower, and that can affect any irrigation efforts later in the year.

"It could mean a water deficit for people working in the agriculture industry."

According to Advantage Spokane statistics, Spokane County boasts an agriculture industry that generates $117 million in annual economic impact and supports 1,576 jobs.

However, it doesn't affect crops too much in the Cheney-Sprague area, according to local farmer Mike McKinley.

McKinley, a fifth-generation farmer who lives between Cheney and Sprague, said all of the farms here are fed by wells rather than through irrigation from streams. Rain has more of a direct impact on how crops are affected in the immediate area, and primarily spring rain.

With the December rain, the soil moisture is pretty good and grown crops should be in good shape this year, he said.

But McKinley said he is concerned about the lack of snowpack, because ground level snowpack does affect how wells fill each season.

"The rain we get is primarily how the wells get filled, because the water saturates the ground and then goes into the wells," McKinley said. "But, with more snowpack at the ground level, the wells will fill as that snow melts down also.

"If we don't get adequate snowfall, it can be tough to fill the lakes and wells with very little ground level runoff."

According to McKinley, other areas of the state are impacted differently by snowpack.

He said most of the areas that are irrigated through streams are down along the Columbia River Basin, because the snowmelt directly flows into the streams.

"Farmers down past Moses Lake will be more heavily impacted by mountain runoff than we will," McKinley said. "When they don't get adequate snow out that way it basically becomes a desert."

There are some other concerns that sometimes outweigh the weather, and those tie into the different legislative efforts of the state and federal government.

"One of my biggest concerns is the fact that water is becoming a critical resource," McKinley said. "With more people living in the area it also creates a greater strain on the current water system.

"And on top of that, in recent years the state has been trying to suggest legislation that limits how we can use water which is a bigger concern than even the weather."

 

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