MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Despite snowstorms in Skagit County in early February and a flurry in March, there’s less snowpack than normal in the North Cascades.
That means summer streamflows could reach lows last seen during the snowpack drought of 2015, said water supply specialist Scott Pattee with the Washington Snow Survey Office.
According to the Washington Water Supply Outlook Report released April 1, of which Pattee is a major contributor, snowpack in the Skagit River watershed is at 71% of normal.
“When we had the valley snows in February and really got dumped on ... it was actually at really low elevations,” Pattee said, explaining that the cold front that brought the storms was out of the Fraser River valley to the north. “It was warmer up in the mountains than it was down here.”
There’s now less snow in area mountains and less water in area reservoirs than usual.
Given those factors, streamflows in the North Puget Sound region — including for the Skagit River and its tributaries — are forecast to be 79 to 82% of normal from April to September.
That’s the period during which much of the state relies on snowmelt to supply streams with water needed for drinking, farm irrigation and fish habitat.
While the North Puget Sound region is faring better than areas east of the Cascade Mountains and is forecast to remain above the state drought declaration threshold — 75% of normal — dry conditions could impact crops and create water deficits, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the western half of Skagit County is already considered abnormally dry, and the eastern half is in what the Drought Monitor calls moderate drought conditions.
The Drought Monitor is a collaborative effort by federal, state, tribal and local governments to monitor and manage impacts of drought.
Having a significant impact on the state’s snowpack this year was an unusually dry March, according to the water supply outlook report.
“March started off promising with reasonable snowfall in the mountains and even a rare shot of snow in the low lands,” the report states. “The rest of the month suddenly dried up ... setting records statewide.”
North Puget Sound received 19% of normal precipitation for the month, according to the report.
“March was so darn dry that we just didn’t get anything and every day that we went without snow we just fell behind,” Pattee said.
That lack of spring snowfall in the mountains led to an about 10% decline in summer streamflow forecasts statewide.
Pattee and John Chandler, a hydrologist for dam operator Puget Sound Energy, said it’s unlikely there will be any additional snow to give the region a boost.
Extended forecasts from the National Weather Service indicate above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation continuing through June.
The weather service also forecasts that much of the state, including Skagit County, may see what it calls drought conditions by the end of June.
That means there is a chance streamflow — and therefore water supply — could run low this summer for the first time since the snowpack drought of 2015.
That year snowpack was at 41% of normal as of April 1, Pattee said, but rain was ample. He said that means that while streamflows in Skagit County are expected to remain above the state drought declaration threshold, the summer could still bring challenges.
“This year we’re lacking both rain and snow, so the effects of that could be just as bad (as 2015) or maybe worse,” he said.
Chandler said while snowpack conditions aren’t ideal, he’s confident the dams will be able to meet their federally required minimum flow this summer.
He said the dams help act as a buffer to ensure flows are adequate for fish and to meet other needs downstream.