Northwest waits for predicted snow

Changing weather would aid energy crunch

January 31, 2001|By KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEATTLE - A series of storms hitting Washington state this week stands to help salvage a bad snowpack, a critical element of the West's energy shortage, but just barely. If forecasts hold up, what might have become one of the worst years on record could end up as just the worst in recent memory.

"This is going to be a week where we start gaining," said Cliff Mass, University of Washington professor of atmospheric sciences, viewing the glass half full. "We're not going to fall behind anymore."

This year's snowfall has been dismal, with levels across the Columbia Basin running at a little better than half the norm. If it continued at this rate, the basin's snowpack would be close to its level of 1977, the worst year on record, said Dan Moore, a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service hydrologist in Portland.

Hydropower depends heavily on snow, which can store roughly two-thirds of the water that runs through the region's dams in spring and summer. Moreover, the region's dam operators have had to run more water than they would like through the dams to maintain salmon nesting sites, and also - under a federal order - to produce more power for California.

As of Monday, water levels in the Bonneville Power Administration's system were at 39 percent of normal, the fourth-lowest in 74 years of records, said Mike Hansen, BPA spokesman. "If we could get more water, it would be manna from heaven," he said.

Driving the snow drought has been a pattern in which a high-pressure system over the region has split incoming storms from the Pacific Ocean, sending moisture to Canada and Alaska while leaving the Northwest relatively dry. That seems to have changed Sunday night, said Mass, as the strongest cold front in more than a month blew through the area with a vengeance.

More rain and snow in the Cascades were forecast for the rest of the week as a series of disturbances passes through, with substantial precipitation possible Friday, Saturday and Sunday, said Mass. Temperatures will rise some, but most of the precipitation will fall in the form of snow where snow is needed, he said.

Less-accurate forecasting models call for rain or snow in the area in the next 10 days.

"It seems like the lock has been broken, and we're getting into a greater variety of weather patterns," Mass said.

"I hope he's right," said Moore, the hydrologist. But even if the region's weather does return to normal, said Moore, the snowpack is unlikely to recover much.

If there's normal precipitation from now until early April, when the snowpack traditionally peaks, it would yield snow levels about 70 percent of normal. That would make the snowpack similar to 1994, the worst year in recent memory.

Snow watchers for Seattle City Light should have a better sense of their snowpack next week, said Ole Kjosnes, power analyst for the utility.

Unfortunately, he said, two-thirds of the snow season has already passed, making it hard to catch up.

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