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How One Snowstorm Can Change Idaho's Seasonal Water Outlook

Julie Rose
For Boise State Public Radio

Randy Julander measures snowpack for the U.S. government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. It’s his job to tell water users what they can expect to see flowing down their streams and irrigation canals come spring.

When Julander answered my recent phone call, he was way up in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. He was having some mixed feelings.

"Gosh, it’s clear skies and the sun is hotter than a two-dollar pistol. I’m sitting here at 8,500 feet and in shirt sleeves," Julander said.

"Does that seem like a good sign?" I asked.

“Should be colder than a well-digger’s butt,” Julander replied.

In early February, Idaho farmers were being warned of serious restrictions in crop irrigation this season and Northern Utah communities were praying for precipitation. And then, a single, unexpected storm changed the outlook completely. Snowpack levels were suddenly close to average.  Now, a month later, the water outlook is even better.

A Changing Climate Brings Challenges For Water Managers

Despite the unseasonably warm temperatures he encountered on that mountain peak, Julander is in a pretty good mood when we meet at his Salt Lake City office a few days later. Above the desk hangs one of the six-foot-long metal tubes he uses to measure the depth and water-content of snow. His February measurements turned up excellent –and unexpected - news for northern Utah, all because of one big storm early in the month.

“In fact, when we look at the probabilities associated with this kind of event coming in at the beginning of February, we were about a 1 in 20 chance of getting back to average, much less above average," says Julander. "We hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded.”

The news was even better to the north where Julander’s counterpart, Ron Abramovich, monitors Idaho and parts of Wyoming.

“Well this February was great," Abramovich says. "Some of our basins got up to 200 percent of normal – including the Boise Basin and upper Snake in Wyoming. A few sites in western Wyoming got up to three times their normal [precipitation]. So, it’s just what we need after the very dry November and December and January."

Those early-winter months are when the Intermountain West used to get the bulk of its annual snowpack, says Abramovich.  

“Back in the 50s and 60s we could say we were a more gentler climate and you could expect normal snowfall and normal spring precipitation," Abramovich adds. "But what we’re seeing is a greater degree of climate variability, basically.”

How One Storm Can Turn The Water Table

Credit Julie Rose / For Boise State Public Radio
For Boise State Public Radio
This is what 'The Ridge' looks like on a computer image.

Studies out of the University of Idaho and the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University have found fewer winter storms coming across the West, but packing a bigger punch when they do. It’s like we’re a stockbroker now, building our snowpack through giant bonus checks rather than the modest, steady salary we used to collect.

This year is a perfect example says National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney.

He points to his computer screen where you clearly see swirling wind patterns across the region.

"If you can conceive of a big bubble of energy right here over the West," McInerney explains,"and that area right here is absent of any storms. You can see it goes south of Baja and north of Alaska.”

Energy bubbles are fairly common, but rarely are they so large and stubborn as the one climate experts have dubbed 'The Ridge.' It sat for months like a brick wall on top of Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California, deflecting any storm. Until finally, in the first week of February, an against-all-odds-bottom-of-the-ninth-homer-of-a-storm swept in from Hawaii on a warm, wet system called the Pineapple Express.

“And now what you see is the ridge is totally broken down for the most part,” says McInerney. “[But] I come in every day and I worry that that high pressure is going to build.”

He worries because a return of 'The Ridge' would mean a warm, dry spring where the snow melts too quickly, flooding rivers and surpassing reservoirs where we need to store it for the long summer ahead. Furthermore, McInerney says a premature melt can cause as much as half the snow to evaporate before it gets off the mountain.

Taking Advantage Of Early Runoff

Idaho lawmakers have allocated millions of dollars toward the possibility of expanding dams to better capture early runoff. And just imagine the spring-planting quandary for farmers who comprise the West’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

Rick Waitely of the Idaho Hay and Forage Association says they look to Ron Abramovich as their snow oracle.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘What’s Ron saying? What’s Ron saying?’ Because they’re used to seeing him on TV saying ‘Here’s where the snowpack is,’" says Waitely.

But Abramovich says he finds himself qualifying his predictions more now than in the past: He adds that climate variability has made making accurate forecasts more difficult than in the past.

The reason behind the more dramatic swings is still up for debate. Some experts blame global warming. Others say they're not sure enough to make that connection.  Whatever the reason, climate and water experts in the West all agree that, when it comes to snowpack, things are changing. 

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio

Julie Rose has been reporting for WFAE since January 2008, covering everything from political scandal and bank bailouts to homelessness and the arts. She's a two-time winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award for radio writing. Prior to WFAE, Julie reported for KCPW in Salt Lake City where she got her start in radio. Before that, she was a nonprofit fundraiser and a public relations manager in the San Francisco Bay Area. It took a few career changes, but Julie finally found her calling in public radio reporting because she gets paid to do what she does best – be nosy. She's a graduate of the communications program at Brigham Young University and contributes frequently to National Public Radio programs.

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