Water reserves OK for now, but hot weather has put a dent in snowpack

Staff writerJuly 5, 2013 

The brown, sediment-filled Puyallup River empties into Commencement Bay on Wednesday. The warm weather has caused snowpack in the Cascades to melt quickly.


The recent hot weather has done more than send South Sound residents to pools, lakes and rivers to cool off.

The remaining snowpack in the Cascade Mountains is quickly melting, and, if the heat continues, it could affect the long-term health of glaciers in the region.

Officials say the rapid runoff isn’t unheard of this time of year and that it’s too early to tell what, if any, ill effects will result.

At the moment, because of above-average levels of snowpack and precipitation, water reservoirs are in “good shape,” according to a report from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

At Mount Rainier National Park, for example, Paradise measured 744 inches of snow this year, higher than the annual average of 620 to 680 inches, said Scott Beason, a park geologist.

During the recent heat wave, Paradise’s weather station showed snow melted faster than normal, about 7 inches per day compared with the average 3 to 4 inches.

“This year it looks like we will blast through the snow,” Beason said.

Additionally, the freezing level is near 16,000 feet, compared with the average 12,000 to 14,000 feet at this time of year.

The heat isn’t a concern for the mountain yet, Beason said.

“You can’t really draw any assumptions from that,” he said.

However, continued high temperatures could result in the snowpack melting entirely and eroding the glaciers below, he said. Glaciers serve as a long-term source of fresh water, and loss of their ice could have consequences if the water were needed later, Beason said.

This year, water levels in the state’s reservoirs are consistent with average trends, said Paul Rogers, a conservationist at the NRCS Puyallup office. The agency monitors snow levels and water content of snowpack and compares data year-to-year to pinpoint averages and predict availability of resources.

Most of the Cascades’ snowpack had already melted and filled regional reservoirs before the recent high temperatures, Rogers said. Therefore, it is unlikely rapid melting now will affect water resources later in the year, he said.

Despite current average water levels, residents should not ignore conservation practices, Rogers said. Contrary to what some might think, he said, Western Washington doesn’t have excess resources.

For people in urban areas such as Tacoma, he said, being knowledgeable about water use is important. Because heat drives up use, any bit of conservation helps, Rogers said.

“It makes sense, even on an individual basis, to do what you can,” he said. “Every individual really makes a difference. It’s the right thing to do.”

The real issue during hot spells is awareness of safety in and near the water, officials said.

Rivers flow fast and cold, and rapid snowmelt means a high likelihood for debris in the water, said John Clemens, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It is the most dangerous time of the year,” he said.

On Tuesday, fast-moving cold water halted searchers looking for inner tuber Austin Smith, 25, who disappeared Monday while floating down the Puyallup River with some friends near Sumner. The recent river flow on the Puyallup is about 66 percent higher than normal for this time of year, according to geological survey data.

The incident on the Puyallup, Clemens said, reinforces the importance of safety awareness as people seek relief from the hot weather. As residents cool off along riverbanks, they should know the conditions of the areas they are in, he said.

Even experts have struggled with water conditions.

Crews on Mount Rainier trying to survey the river have been unable to venture too far into the water because of increased flow, Beason said.

“People really have to be careful,” he said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

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