April showers increase snowpack in Washington, but cold weather offers hit some crops east of Cascades
Hal Bernton/The Seattle Times
A series of powerful, cold April storms amplified the region’s snowpack, producing plentiful powder snow for skiers and helping to bolster water supplies to key irrigated agricultural areas east of the Cascades.
During the first 15 days of April, the statewide snowpack fell from 80% of average to 96% of average. A site that measures snowfall near Snoqualmie Pass recorded 89 inches during that time, a record high, according to Scott Pattee of the Washington office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the cold weather that made it possible also put many Washington farmers on edge as last week’s sub-freezing temperatures hit orchards, vineyards and fields.
“We’re definitely worried and nervous. We know there’s damage, but it’s really hard to gauge the effect on crops,” said Sean Gilbert, a fruit grower in central Yakima Valley. from Washington.
The abundant snow and rain at the end of the season did not fall in the same way in the region. Parts of Idaho, eastern and southern Oregon and California are facing severe water shortages that will reduce irrigation flows for some farmers.
In Washington, some wheat growing areas have yet to recover from long-term moisture deficits. And, even with all the April storms, most mountain drainages across the state still remain below April 15 averages, as measured between 1991 and 2020. The biggest deficits were in Lower Yakima, still only 59% of the average, and Klickitat drainage at 77%.
Meanwhile, drainage from Central Puget Sound east of Seattle on Friday was 107% of long-term average. The Cascades in northern Oregon also received snowfall after snowfall last week, creating memorable conditions at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort.
Washington’s snowpack in recent years has often melted earlier than long-term norms, which can dry out soils and kick off the summer fire season. This is expected to happen more often in coming decades as climate change, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, increases global temperatures.
This year, at the end of a warm March, the snowpack appeared dense and “fully ripe” with all the warm rains to trigger another rapid and early melt, according to Nick Bond, the state climatologist.
The cold and wet April helped to delay the snowmelt deeper into the spring. The later the snowmelt, the more runoff can help maintain summer river flows that generate electricity as they pass through hydroelectric turbines at dams and are key migration corridors for salmon returning from the sea to spawn.
A striking aspect of last week’s storms was low-level snow, which fell across a wide swath of the state, including key agricultural areas in central and eastern Washington.
Lon Inaba, general manager of Yakama Nation Farms, said several inches of heavy wet snow delayed asparagus crops, but it was an overall benefit, as the 1,500 acres of vegetables and fruits were dry and needed moisture.
“We really needed water, so I’ll take a lost week of asparagus,” Inaba said.
Scott Revell, Roza Irrigation District Manager, said a slight water shortage appeared likely for the 2022 growing season. But he now expects there will be enough water to the 72,000 irrigated acres of the district. Much of this acreage is planted in high-value fruit orchards, and some have experienced temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
To raise temperatures in the orchards, growers have used fans that create wind, as well as warmer irrigation water.
“I’ve heard a few producers say we’re in uncharted territory,” Revell said.
At Gilbert Orchards, which gets some of its water from the Roza Irrigation District, the cold spell hit when the apricots had already produced small green fruits. Some of them now have bits of brown.
Cherry trees are in full bloom and some varieties of apples are beginning to bloom, and all are vulnerable to damage.
Over the next few days, as the weather finally warms up, Gilbert said he will better understand the impact of the cold.