Water reserves low in Olympics

A lack of snowfall in the Olympic Mountains could lead to low water levels and an earlier fire season as Western Washington’s reserves are kept in the snowpack.

The current snow water equivalent for the Olympic region is 36 percent of normal, the lowest of all the state’s snow regions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Washington snow report. The next lowest region, the North Puget Sound around North Cascades National Park, was at 55% of normal on Tuesday.

The state’s highest region was the Upper Yakima Basin, which was at 83% of normal.

“December was the sixth driest in Washington history,” said Jimmy Norris, communications manager for the state Department of Ecology’s Water Resources Program.

“Just the first three months of the water year were extremely dry,” Norris said. “By January, we typically have 40 percent of the snowpack we’re going to have for the year.”

Part of the warmer temperatures can be attributed to the weather phenomenon know as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or simply El Niño, which brings warmer temperatures to the northern part of the U.S. and colder temperatures in the south.

“Washington winters tend to be warmer than normal during El Niño, and there are higher chances of a below normal snowpack by April 1,” the Washington State Climatologist’s Office said in a Jan. 18 update. “The three-month outlook for February through April has a high probability of above normal temperatures across all of Washington state.”

Daily high temperature records were set across Western Washington on Sunday, with Quillayute reaching 60 degrees — the previous record was 59 in 1998 — and Hoquiam recording 58 degrees. The previous record there was 55 degrees in 2019.

El Niño years can still see a lot of variation in weather patterns, said Matthew Cullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, but while temperatures on the Olympic Peninsula are expected to cool over the coming week, snowfall in the mountains will be minimal.

“Right now we aren’t seeing any significant snow,” Cullen said. “This pattern looks pretty dry as we do move into the weekend.”

The lack of snow is also hampering operations for the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Club, which has been unable to start its season due to lack of snowpack. The club has said it needs 3 feet of good snow before it can operate.

On Tuesday, USDA’s SNOTEL snow level data for Waterhole at Hurricane Ridge reported 16 inches of snow, down from a seasonal peak of 37 inches on Jan. 13.

A lower snowpack could lead to increased fire danger later in the year.

“A weak snowpack could produce an earlier start to 2024 fire activity, particularly from the Cascades westward,” according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook.

“Above normal potential may develop earlier in the season depending on remaining winter month snowpack development and spring rainfall.”

Last year saw the second highest number of wildfires in state history with 1,880, according to the Department of Natural Resources, with more than half in Western Washington.

In July, the Department of Ecology declared drought conditions for parts of 12 counties, including most of Clallam County and part of West Jefferson County. The winter has been so dry that those drought conditions still persist, Norris said.

Furthermore, much of the state’s soil is dry, meaning some snowmelt will absorb into the ground rather than melt into rivers.

“This is going to be the norm as climate change takes hold,” Norris said. “It’s the same amount of water coming out of the sky, it’s just going to come as rain instead of snow.”

Most of Washington’s water reserves are kept in its snowpack, and as snowfall decreases, the state may need to start looking at alternative ways of reserving water, Norris said.

“But honestly, we’re not there yet,” Norris said.