Heavy snow improves Yakima River summer water outlook

Tri-City HeraldFebruary 19, 2014 

Cascade Mountain snowpack

The Yakima River flows near Benton City on Wednesday. Thanks to heavy snow in the Cascades Mountains this week the chances of a drought in the Mid-Columbia this summer are becoming less likely Snowpack in the Cascade Mountains has risen to about 95 percent of the average snowfall that feeds water to the Lower Yakima River Basin, according to Scott Pattee, U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

— The heavy snow that forced Snoqualmie Pass to close twice this week has almost eliminated the chances of a drought in the Mid-Columbia this summer.

The snowpack in the Cascade Mountains has risen to about 95 percent of the average snowfall that feeds water to the Lower Yakima River Basin, Scott Pattee, U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist, said Wednesday.

“I think at 95 percent, we are in pretty good shape,” he said.

Snowpack is vital because that melting snow during the summer fills the Yakima River so that water is available for Mid-Columbia towns, crops and fish. Without irrigation water, many area crops, including potatoes, tree fruit and grapes, can’t be grown.

The Kennewick, Columbia and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts all use Yakima River Basin water to serve properties in Benton and Yakima counties. Columbia and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts have senior water rights that the state and federal government can’t limit.

But Kennewick Irrigation District’s water rights, along with one-third of the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District’s water rights, are proratable. That means during a drought, water users would only get a percentage of the water they have the right to use in plentiful water years.

Statewide, the snowpack has drastically improved since the beginning of the month, shooting up from 55 percent of average to 84 percent, Pattee said. It would help if the Cascades continue to see some snow off and on, but Pattee said a heavy snowfall is no longer needed.

More snow will be needed in order to keep up the snowpack when compared to average levels, said Nic Loyd, Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet meteorologist. Typically, snowpack peaks around April 1.

More snow is expected in the Cascades through today, with some areas getting another foot of snow, he said.

That should taper off into showers on Friday, Loyd said. But the weekend should be drier.

Loyd said the area is much closer to an average snowpack than many thought it would be even a week ago.

In the Tri-Cities and Prosser area, calmer, cooler weather also is expected by this weekend, he said.

A good snowpack in the Canadian ranges early this winter means officials are not anticipating water supply issues for irrigators using the Columbia River.

And the Lower Snake River Basin is up to 104 percent of average snowpack, Pattee said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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