Olympics snowpack at 23 percent of normal -- but is it right to panic?
Peninsula Daily News

The Olympic Mountains' winter snowpack is money in the bank.

When snowpacks are low, as they are right now all around the Northwest, the bank goes bust -- which could lead to extreme dry conditions and water supply shortages come summer.

``The bank's only half-full, and we have to figure out how to make more deposits instead of withdrawals,'' Mount Vernon-based water supply specialist Scott Pattee with the federal Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service said Friday.

That's the situation the North Olympic Peninsula is facing right now, as snowpack in the mountains averaged only 23 percent of normal on Feb. 1 with higher than normal temperatures.

Low winter snowpack means lower runoff into the region's rivers come summertime, potentially causing shortages in public water supply and problems for fisheries.

No alarm sounded yet

In the Sequim-Dungeness River area, there's some caution in estimating water conditions later in the year, but no one's sounding the alarm just yet.

``It's really too early to predict what stream flows are going to be,'' said Mike Jeldness, coordinator of the Dungeness Valley Water Users Association and manager of the Agnew Irrigation District.

In some years, he said, an above-average snowpack can be decimated by hot, dry weather in the spring and summer, leading to low water levels.

In other years, a meager snowpack can be mitigated by a cool spring and regular precipitation later in the year, and water levels stay healthy.

``In Eastern Washington it's a lot easier to predict,'' he said.

``Out here on the Peninsula, it's just really hard to say if we're going to have a difficult water situation in August or September. . . . I really start to look at the end of June.''

The water users association includes the Agnew, Highland, Cline and Dungeness irrigation districts and the Clallam, Dungeness and Sequim Prairie water companies.

They provided water from the Dungeness River to irrigate a little over 5,900 acres in 2003.

``It just seems like when you get one of these dry winters, you end up with a really wet summer,'' said Jeldness.

``In 27 years, I've yet to see a real serious drought/brownout in the Dungeness Valley. I'm not saying it couldn't happen. We just seem to manage to luck out.''

The city of Sequim keeps active an infiltration system for emergency use that draws about 200 gallons a day from the Dungeness River -- a relatively small amount, Public Works Director James Bay said.

Most of Sequim's water comes from wells in the Silberhorn and Port Williams well fields -- and those wells, said Bay, are probably deep enough to weather a summer water shortage.

``The water that comes off the snowpack today won't go into the aquifer until -- well, until I don't know when,'' said Bay.

It could take a couple of years to a couple of decades, depending on the depth of the aquifer and what the water has to go through to get there.

Well depth

The city's wells are between 225 and 425 feet deep. The people who should be concerned are those with wells 100 feet deep or less, Bay said, since those will be the ones first affected by low snow runoff levels.

``We're in a different aquifer than most people around here, and that benefits us,'' Bay said.

The city has also taken steps to reduce the amount of water it pumps from under ground and use what is pumped as efficiently as possible, including recycling it.

And it has aggressively pursued water conservation methods in recent years.

Should water supplies run low in Sequim -- and they might, Bay acknowledged -- the city has ordinances in place to limit activities like lawn irrigation that are not considered essential uses.

Port Angeles controls

Port Angeles might also need to curtail residents' water use this summer, Public Works Director Glenn Cutler said.

It's hard to speculate what will happen in six months, he said, ``but unless there is a significant change in the snow accumulation or snowpack in the mountains, it could certainly trigger the requirement for implementing conservation measures.''

The city gets its water from the 60-foot-deep Ranney Collector on the Elwha River that draws groundwater into the well.

The city could also draw from Morse Creek, but if the flows in the Elwha are low, they will be low in Morse Creek, Cutler said.

Port Angeles also has reservoirs around the city that can sustain water supply for a period of time, but not for a whole summer.

The city last invoked a water shortage response plan in 2001, the year then-Gov. Gary Locke declared a statewide drought emergency.

Port Angeles could restrict residents' outdoor watering or ask people to consolidate their dishwasher and washing machine loads in future water shortages.

``I feel comfortable that even in an extreme drought situation, we'd still be able to supply water to citizens,'' Cutler said.

Effect on fisheries

Low snowpack may also mean low summer flows on the Peninsula's rivers that could impact fisheries.

The flows on the Elwha are about average right now given a fair amount of rain, but a continuing low-snow trend could harm the thousands of chinook and hundreds of pink salmon that return to the river each year, said Mike McHenry, Lower Elwha Klallam tribe fish habitat manager.

A low river means the fish would be compressed in their rearing space, subjected to a lot of stress and water warmer than they can handle.

Fish have a much harder time living when it's that shallow since there's simply less room, said Scott Chitwood, director of natural resources for the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe.

It also makes it difficult for salmon to get upriver, or even into the river, to spawn.

For example, in 2001 workers used sandbags to build pools in the Grey Wolf River to eliminate a bottleneck of pink salmon, opening up another stretch of spawning area that otherwise would've been off-limits because of low water.

In 1987, people dug channels at the mouths of some rivers so that fish could make it over the ``riffles,'' Chitwood said.

``Those are some of the examples that I'm afraid we might be facing,'' he said.

``It would behoove us to be ready to do some of those things we've done in the past.''

``I think fisheries people throughout the Northwest are really concerned, because it's not just going to affect the Elwha,'' said McHenry.

``It's going to affect a lot of river basins.''

Bit more snow in Olympics

The Olympics are faring slightly better than the rest of the state when it comes to snowpack, but to see normal runoff this summer, Agriculture's Pattee estimates the region will need to receive double the normal amount of snowfall over the next two months.

Not likely, he says.

``It's just going to be dry like it is right now.''

The last time the snowpack was as low as it is now was 1977, when mountains were bare until snow arrived in March.

``It's tempting to hope that the same thing will happen this year,'' said state climatologist Philip Mote, ``and of course a lot of us are hoping that is what happens.''



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