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'Very low' B.C. snowpack raises drought concerns

"There still is time, but time is running out," says hydrologist with the B.C. River Forecast Centre, on getting back to a normal snowpack.
The Cleveland Dam gushes water with its spillway gate partially open. The record weekly flow levels into Metro Vancouver's reservoirs in late January melted 60 per cent of previously accumulated snowfall. File photo Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

The depth of snow across the mountains of southwest B.C. has dipped below half of normal, raising concerns of extended drought and cascading effects for wildlife and jobs over the coming months. 

The B.C. River Forecast Centre’s latest snowpack and water supply bulletin, released Thursday, shows the province’s snowpack has dipped to “very low” levels, averaging 61 per cent of normal. That’s 18 per cent lower than the snowpack at this time last year. 

A lack of snow has combined with lingering impacts of drought to create “significantly elevated drought hazards for this upcoming spring and summer,” warned the latest bulletin. 

Jonathan Boyd, a hydrologist with the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said that for this time of year, the average snowpack in B.C. has hit its lowest level in the past 45 years.

“What’s unusual is how just the entire province is below normal,” said Boyd.

In B.C., the areas with the most depleted snowpack are in the province’s southwest. In the headwaters of the Skagit River, which flow through Manning Park, zero snowpack was recorded at measurement stations. The Lower Fraser region has seen snow levels dip to 47 per cent of normal. And on the South Coast, they sit at 41 per cent. 

“It’s extremely bad,” said Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. 

“From a drought perspective, from a wildfire perspective, it’s certainly not good news.”

B.C. farmers and ranchers on edge 

The situation has also raised concerns among people who rely on the land to make a living.

Deb Duyvesteyn, co-owner of Coast Berry Company Ltd. in Powell River, said she and her husband have been talking about the possibility of drought every day this week. 

The couple run a commercial blueberry and strawberry operation that ships much of their products to farmers markets and grocery stores in B.C.’s bigger cities. Water to irrigate those crops comes from a large pond recharged by rain and melting snow. 

“If we don’t get a snowpack, it’s definitely going to affect our crops,” Duyvesteyn said. “We’re going to be f**ed this summer.”

Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, says his members are also keeping a close eye on potential drought conditions. Snowpack impacts how much water ranchers have to grow hay. Not enough water, and hay prices go up, forcing some to sell off their cattle earlier and losing money in the process, Boon said.

“If we don’t see the water flows significant enough for the fish to spawn, then we get shut off earlier. It’s a domino effect,” he said. “Right now, it’s not looking too optimistic.”

In an emailed statement, Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen said his ministry is working with 30 communities around the province to help ranchers and farmers plan for the potential drought.

Without a swing in weather in the coming months, “the potential for drought conditions is very real,” Cullen said.

Cullen said the Ministry of Agriculture and Food is hosting in-person workshops in more than 30 communities to help farmers around the province prepare for potential drought.

High temperatures lead to record flows

The snowpack bulletin comes amid a 79 per cent chance warming will be made worse by El Niño this spring, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Seasonal weather forecasts from Environment and Climate Change Canada show a “very high likelihood” of above normal temperatures across B.C. between February to April, and a moderate likelihood of warmer than normal temperatures from May to July. 

The snowpack feeding three reservoirs above B.C.’s largest urban centre has also been significantly depleted. In the mountains surrounding Metro Vancouver, an atmospheric river in late January dumped 300 millimetres of rainfall on a snowpack that was already 26 per cent of the historical average at the start of the month.

While 100 centimetres of snowpack was added during a January cold snap, 60 centimetres were lost during the late month rains. By Jan. 1, the depth of snow had dropped to 31 per cent of normal. On the Capilano and Seymour rivers, the atmospheric river event led to high and extreme flows that eclipsed record seven‐day average flows, stated Metro Vancouver staff in an update this week.

“The biggest thing was that the freezing level rose right up past the mountaintop,” said Heidi Walsh, Metro Vancouver's director of watershed and environmental management. “Our snowpack took a hit.” 

While reservoirs are now full, the region could “potentially run into trouble” if there isn’t enough spring rainfall and not enough snowpack to back it up, said Walsh.

“It’s essentially mirroring the freshet, but in January,” said Castellan. “The numbers are not good.”

Low snowpack raises spectre of extended drought 

In B.C.’s Interior, forecasts for the Okanagan and Nicola Lake near Merritt show “extremely low” seasonal runoff, a sign of “elevated seasonal drought hazards,” the forecast centre warned. 

One of the worst-hit areas of the province is on Vancouver Island, where snow levels have plummeted to 30 per cent of normal. The lack of snow has echoed across multiple industries. In recent weeks, the ski resort at Mount Washington was forced to close due to a lack of snow.

Stephen Watson, a spokesperson for BC Hydro on Vancouver Island, said the utility just recorded a massive inflow of water into its reservoirs. 

“We just came through one of the largest sets of storms on record last week,” he said. “It was one of the highest inflows we’ve ever seen in Campbell River.”

Watson said that while snowpack is down, the BC Hydro reservoirs on the island are full, and “we’re starting from a good place” ahead of the summer season.

With up to three months left in the snow season, conditions could still change, but “current trends in low snowpack are expected to persist,” warned the B.C. River Forecast Centre.

For Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the latest snow deficit is “really serious,” and requires more proactive and aggressive drought planning from the government, especially on Vancouver Island. 

He’s worried about young salmon getting enough water to reach the ocean this spring, and for the adults to swim back to their home rivers to spawn. 

“It shows the unprecedented drought we had last summer never really ended,” said Hill. “There’s a lot of potential for [a] severe water shortage.”

Every day, that potential is growing. Boyd said the seven- to 10-day forecast shows little sign of moisture. And with the snow season already about two-thirds over, the odds of getting back to a normal snowpack are pretty low, said the hydrologist.

“There still is time, but time is running out,” he said.