The Relatively Wet Winter Whipped Washington's Snowpack Back Into Shape


Washington's snowpack is in good shape.

As of April 9, snowpack levels were either average or well above average for all of the state's basins. Much of the Cascade Range has had an especially wet winter, with snowpack more than 30% above average — the Cascades may even have the best snowpack in the country right now.

Eastern Washington didn't see quite as much snow, but it's still been a good winter.

"Everybody's kind of where we'd like to see them," said Rocco Pelatti, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Spokane office.

This winter

was part of a La Niña year. During La Ninñ years, the Pacific Northwest typically gets heavy rains and snows while the rest of the West sees drier conditions than normal.

That pattern held true in the winter of 2020-21. While Washington has been fortunate, western states south of Idaho have seen exceptionally low precipitation. Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and western Colorado might be poised for extreme drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, much of Eastern Washington has been abnormally dry, including the western half of Spokane County. A handful of Eastern Washington counties are experiencing moderate drought. Parts of Grant, Kittitas, Yakima, Klickitat and Benton counties are in severe drought.

The good snow year is especially welcome given those dry conditions.

"It's really helping us to pull out of that," said Vaughn Cork, a fuels analyst with the Washington Department of Natural Resources. "It looks for now that the drought conditions will be removed by the end of June."

Mountain snowpack is important for many reasons. For one, it plays a role in determining drought conditions, water availability for irrigators and the severity of wildfire seasons. It also influences river flows, which affects fish and recreators.

Josh Flanagan, who owns Wiley E. Waters' Whitewater Rafting, said he keeps an eye on snowpack levels because they help him forecast the upcoming season.

So long as temperatures don't get too warm in the next couple of months, rafting companies could have an excellent, long spring.

"It definitely excites us," Flanagan said. "It gives us a possibility for a really good whitewater year in Spokane."

The last few years have been kind for river users in the area, Flanagan said. The last bad year was 2015, when river flows were low and most of the state experienced drought conditions.

Deep snows could help minimize the severity of the upcoming fire season, although experts said snowpack is just one factor in predicting wildfires.

"We're still trying to figure out what the summer's going to hold for us," said Forrest Ownbey, a landowner assistance forester with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Fire seasons have gotten longer in recent decades throughout the West. There are a handful of factors that play into the growing fire problem, including rising temperatures due to climate change, long-term fire suppression and the spread of invasive species.

In general, the West has had less snowpack and that snowpack has been melting earlier, allowing fuels to dry out sooner. While a relatively bountiful snowpack this year doesn't necessarily mean the upcoming fire season will be mild, it certainly doesn't hurt.

"It does make a big difference when it comes to plant stress and the larger diameter forest fuels," Cork said. "When (plants) are stressed, they're more susceptible to burning earlier."