Slow start for Western snow and persistent drought hamper hunters, skiers, farmers

Sunday, November 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When the snow finally began falling in the West this week, Lee Bolin was golfing in Florida _ his Colorado hunting outfit shut down after a dismal season. Kills were off 30 percent, thanks to an unusually warm and dry fall that kept the elk in hiding and his clients scouting in shirt sleeves.

``We generally get a couple of snows in September, but this year we didn't get any. In November, it's on the ground all the time,'' said Bolin, a Colorado Springs-based outfitter. ``When we pulled out a week ago, it was 65 degrees and we were working with no shirts on. That is NOT good.''

The slow start to the snow season, coupled with persistent drought in some parts of the West, has strained businesses throughout the region that rely on the white stuff and the moisture it supplies.

Ski resorts in Montana, Utah and Colorado failed to make their traditional Thanksgiving Day openings because of the lack of snowfall and inability to make snow due to warm temperatures.

Some Idaho outfitters canceled fall float and fish trips because the rivers were low, while wheat farmers in Oregon _ suffering from three straight years of drought _ are praying for rain or snow to insulate the winter wheat crop and replenish the parched soil.

``I'll often hear someone say, `Ugh, it's raining again,' or 'It's cloudy again,' and my response is, `Thank God it's raining!''' said Tammy Dennee, executive director of the Oregon Wheat Growers League. ``Our growers have been severely damaged by these years of drought. We're glad to see those rain drops come down, but we're still anxiously awaiting the arrival of snow.''

A storm swept over parts of the West on Saturday, and was expected to bring rain to some areas and dump as much as 2 feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada. But there hasn't been enough wet weather so far to ease drought conditions.

Until the storm Thanksgiving week that dumped snow on parts of Utah, Colorado and Montana, nearly the entire West saw above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in October and most of November, said Kelly Redmond, a climatologist at the Western Regional Climate Center.

In parts of Montana, temperatures that should have been in the 30s soared into the 50s. Until a few days ago, it was the warmest November in the Colorado Rockies since 1979. Even always-balmy Phoenix was extra-balmy this fall: It hit a record 98 degrees on Oct. 27.

By mid-November, no more than 5 inches of snow covered the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe. There is usually 4 to 10 inches, Redmond said. West Yellowstone, Mont., had just 0.8 inches of snowpack compared with the average by this time of 2.8 inches.

Experts blame a myriad of factors, from global warming and the La Nina phenomenon, which brings warmer weather to the West, to a long-term warming of the world's oceans. And while it's only the beginning of the winter season, some forecasts call for the warm, dry trend to persist _ a cause for concern among groups ranging from hydroelectric companies to farmers.

``There's a little bit more anxiety, given the West is coming off a dry winter and doesn't want to see another,'' Redmond said. ``Seventy-five percent of the water that flows down streams in the West is melted snow. It's often called the white reservoir, and it's just draped over all the mountains in the West.''

Rain helps, but ``What we really want to generate is snowpack for the spring time, said National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Baruffaldi in Sacramento, Calif.

``The snowpack is absolutely vital,'' Redmond concluded. ``There's just no way around that.''

Officials at Bonneville Power Administration are so dependent on Mother Nature that they review weather reports daily. The Portland-based federal agency supplies nearly half the power in the Northwest, most of it from the system of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

That system was strained to the limit this year by a drought that reduced generating capacity to the point that the power administration had to sacrifice some of the water it normally spills over dams to aid salmon runs.

``Last year about this time, forecasters were predicting a very wet winter and we ended up with the second-worst drought on record. Two years in a row of drought could be a real disaster,'' said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey, who hopes the forecasters will be wrong once again.

In the meantime, he added: ``We are watching the mountains and praying for snow.''