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Soaker of a February washes away most of the fears

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Mountains of snow returned along parking lots in Leavenworth last week. Statewide, snowpack levels have improved from 55 to 91 percent of average in the last month.

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From drought to deluge

Wenatchee precipitation
(in inches of water)

Oct. actual: 0.15
Oct. normal: 0.44

Nov. actual: 0.30
Nov. normal: 1.11

Dec. actual: 0.11
Dec. normal: 1.4

Jan. actual: 0.44
Jan. normal: 1.06

Feb. actual: 0.75
Feb. normal: 0.68

Stevens Pass Snotel
(in inches of water or snow)
Oct. 1 actual: 1.2
Oct. 1 normal: 0.0
Oct. 1 snow depth: 5

Nov. 1 actual: 0.0
Nov. 1 normal: 0.0
Nov. 1: snow depth: 0

Dec. 1 actual: 5.6
Dec. 1 normal: 6.0
Dec. 1 snow depth: 17

Jan. 1 actual: 9.2
Jan. 1 normal: 17.0
Jan. 1 snow depth: 32

Feb. 1 actual: 16.5
Feb. 1 normal: 28.6
Feb. 1 snow depth: 64

Feb. 26 actual: 31.8
Feb. 26 normal: 33.8
Feb. 26 snow depth: 130

Source: National Weather Service
and USDA Natural Resources
Conservation Service

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WENATCHEE — The water-gathering season that started out as a drought has taken a decided turn for the wet and snowy the past month. That’s come as good news for those concerned about the impacts of near-record dry winter.

But will it be enough?

Thanks to a huge dump of snow in the Cascades in February, forecasters are now saying yes, at least in terms of mountain snowpack that feeds local rivers through the summer. And mountain snowpack, directly or indirectly, affects us all through our agriculture-based economy, recreation, hydropower and the water we drink.

I don’t think there’s going to be any strong concerns,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

That wasn’t the case just a month ago when the statewide snowpack level was 55 percent of average. Pattee and other water surply forecasters issued warning in January that the Northwest could face severe impacts as a result of drought. Pattee said the Cascade Mountains would have to get 200 percent of its normal snowfall in February and March to catch up. That was very unlikely, he said, based on the weather patterns that had posed a barrier to any storms dropping precipitation along the Cascades the previous four months.

But oh, what a difference a month can make.

Statewide snowpack levels have improved to 91 percent of average. The southern Cascades have received the most snow — more than twice what has fallen in a typical February — to bring snowpack levels to 100 percent of average, Pattee said.

The central and northern Cascades have received less snow, but plenty to alleviate drought concerns. Some areas had record amounts of snow for February.

Pattee’s figures taken from dozens of remote snow level and water equivalent meters in the Cascades show snowpack serving the Central Columbia Basin, including the Wenatchee and Chelan Rivers, now at 87 percent of average. It was at 55 percent. Snowpack for the Upper Columbia region, including the Methow and Okanogan Rivers, have improved to 83 percent.

Those numbers are survivable, but I’d like to see it keep coming,” Pattee said about the snow. Forecasters say we may get another good storm this week.

Skiers and other winter recreationists are happy with the weather change, even if it has caused problems for travelers driving over mountain passes and caused severe avalanche danger. Here’s a few highlights of our extreme February snow:

Stevens Pass Ski Resort is reporting one of its snowiest Februarys on record. The resort reported more than 340 inches of snow this season earlier this week. Nearly half of that came in February. The top of the mountain has more than 150 inches of snow.

The NRCS snow sensor at Stevens Pass showed 16.5 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water made from melted snow — at the end of January. That was 58 percent of normal for that time of year. Since then, the amount has nearly doubled to more than 31 inches and 93 percent of average.

Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie Pass didn’t have enough snow to open until mid January. Now, the ski area is reporting more than 100 inches at the base and 167 inches at the top of the mountain, one of the biggest snowpacks in the country. “It all adds up to amazing snow conditions and the biggest comeback since the 1995 Mariners!” read its website this week.

Holden Village, the historic mining town near the head of Lake Chelan, set a new record for the snowiest February since records began in 1939. Snow for the month measured over 130 inches Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. The previous record of 117 inches came in 1999.

Plain had more than 60 inches in February, breaking a record that stood since 1979.

A more grim side of excess snow are the 11 Northwest deaths caused by February avalanches.

It’s amazing how Mother Nature can compensate for earlier omissions,” said Steve Bodnar, Weather Service forecaster. It was just a month ago that the Weather Service was posting information about drought and the ridge of high pressure that was deflecting storms away from Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Until February came along, Central Washington was headed toward a record dry winter. Lack of December and January snow has been a devasting hit for some winter recreational areas. The Leavenworth Winter Sports Club hauled in truckloads of snow to open it tubing run at the Leavenworth Ski Hill Dec. 7. But no new snow came to open any of its four cross-country ski tracks or downhill runs for the important Christmas holiday week, said Mark Milliette, the club’s manager. The club used creative means to open a short Nordic track at the Tumwater Campground Dec. 27, but day ski tickets that account for nearly half the club’s income were down 90 percent through January.

The club will definitely feel this financially. We have great conditions now, but there’s not enough of the season left to begin to make up what we’ve lost,” Milliette said. The club had to cancel several events including last Saturday’s Hog Loppet, the 23-kilometer day-long fun ski between Mission Ridge and Blewett Pass.

Milliette said he thought in January he might have cancel the event due to lack of snow. Instead, the event was cancelled due to too much snow creating severe avalanche danger.

Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort has enjoyed a good season only because of it snow making equipment. Smaller ski areas like Loup Loup, Echo Valley and Badger Mountain had to wait until February to open.

While snow piled up at higher elevations, the valleys have yet to make up for previous dry months.

How dry has it been? In a word, very, at least between last October and the end of January. Wenatchee normally gets about half of its annual 8 inches of precipitation during those months, usually in the form of piles of snow. Records were set for the driest December in Wenatchee, Omak and Ephrata.

This October through January, instead of 4 inches of moisture, Wenatchee got just 1 inch. It made up a little in February, but at 1.75 inches of precipitation since Oct. 1, it’s still nearly 3 inches behind what it usually has at this time of year.

North Central Washington is a historically arid area that is very dependent on winter snowpack and spring and summer streamflow to irrigate its apples, pears, cherries, soft fruit and grapes, said Tim Smith, Washington State University Extension agent for the region’s tree fruit. Nor does the region have any reservoirs other than a couple alpine lakes to store water. Irrigation water flows mainly from local rivers and streams through a system of canals.

Smith said there are still concerns about shortages for some farmers along the Entiat River, the Stemilt area, but the water situation is looking a lot more positive now than it did a month ago.

I would have been concerned if we hadn’t had the past weeks of snow,” Smith said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re getting there.”

Late arrival of moisture hasn’t hurt Waterville Plateau wheat crops, said Dale Whaley, WSU extension agent for Douglas County. Late moisture is better than no moisture, he said.

If you’d talk to 10 farmers they’d all tell you they’d like another foot of snow,” he said. The only bad thing about snow is if it keeps coming into April when the wheat should be turning green.

I don’t expect that to happen, but you never know. This has been a weird year,” he said.

Reach Rick Steigmeyer at 509-664-7151 or . Read his blog Winemaker's Journal. follow him on Twitter at @steigmeyerww.