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Water restrictions coming early despite huge increase in snowpack over 2015

May 3, 2016
B.C. Basin Snow water Index, April 1, 2016.—B.C. River Forecast Centre

B.C. Basin Snow water Index, April 1, 2016.—B.C. River Forecast Centre

This year, Metro Vancouver appears to be in infinitely better shape, water-wise, for the dry summer months to come than it was a year ago.

According to the B.C. River Forecast Centre, as of April 1, 2016, the South Coast snow basin measured 101 percent of normal. This is better than a sevenfold improvement over April 1, 2015, when the South Coast snow basin measured only 13 percent of normal.

The variations across the 10 points of measurement in the South Coast snow basin range from a low of 53 percent-of-normal in the Lower Powell River, to a high of 127 percent at Callaghan Creek.

While the entire southern third of the province is listed as having normal to above normal snowpack levels, the northern-most quarter has 50 to 59 percent of normal snowpack.

Generally speaking, the regions which had more snow last April had less snow this April and vice versa.

Summer water restrictions may be the new normal

Basin Snow Water Index, April 1, 2015.--B.C. River Forecast Centre

Basin Snow Water Index, April 1, 2015.—B.C. River Forecast Centre

In 2015, when Metro Vancouver suffered its worst-ever summer water squeeze, much was made of the region’s negligible 13 percent spring snowpack, which quickly melted away to nothing in the first weeks of hot dry summer. CBC News reported that the amount of water stored as snow, as of April 1, was the second lowest it had been in 31 years.

We were told that snow was an essential way to bank water for the rainless days of summer. It was B.C.’s mountain snowpack, explained The Tyee last July, “which slowly melts and recharges rivers and reservoirs in the summer”.

Yet, even though the South Coast region now has about all the snowpack it normally expects and over seven times more snow socked away for the summer than it did a year ago, Metro Vancouver is already planning to bring in Stage 1 water restrictions on May 15—two weeks earlier than in 2015.

In January of 2016, CBC News quoted Inder Singh, director of policy planning and analysis in Metro Vancouver’s water services department, as downplaying the importance of snowpack accumulation:

“The snowpack at this time of the year has a benefit to skiers but not for future water supply in the summer because it could effectively all be gone depending on the nature of the temperatures and everything else happening between now and the spring.”

This smacks of overreacting in order to be on the safe side, a year after the region was fairly caught napping in 2015.

As some readers may recall, despite the alarmingly thin snowpack last spring, the chair of Metro Vancouver’s utilities committee, North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto, wasn’t concerned. In March of 2015, Mussatto—the region’s then water czar—confidently told the media that between the region’s full reservoirs and high alpine lakes, there likely wouldn’t be any water shortages in the months ahead.

However, by July of 2015, the South Coast was declared to be in a Level 4 drought and the regional transit authority, TransLink, actually stopped washing buses and Skytrains! The next week Metro Vancouver brought in Stage 3 water restrictions, for the first time since 2003.

The wild wildfire season ahead for Northern B.C.

bc-fire-service-active-fires-05-03-2016

The 39 active large fires currently burning.—B.C. Wildfire Service/Google Earth

A year later, drought fears on the South Coast have diminished if not disappeared. April was hot and dry, with just 24.2 mm of precipitation–much less than normal 88.5 mm–but there are no reports of low reservoirs as a result. Our supply of snow is as good as we could expect and the same is true farther south by the way.

California—after experiencing zero snowpack in the Sierra Nevada in April of 2015—recorded 97 percent normal quantities of the white stuff this March.

Northern British Columbia is another matter altogether. After last summer’s 10 year high in wildfires, a dry winter and a hot, windy spring has led to an alarmingly early start to this year’s fire season.

As of this writing, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service, there are already 39 active fires larger than 10 hectares burning in the province, with 34 if them located in the northern Prince George area, where many residents have already been forced to flee their homes. Click the images to enlarge them.

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