Mountain snowpack: What the story looks like (so far this year)


The word "snow" hasn't been in our vocabulary much the last week or two, except perhaps when mentioning we want more of it (in the mountains), or that we're happy to not see it piling up on the valley floor already at this point in the season.

Whichever way you slice it, it's been a dry December so far, but the ideal scenario would change that -- at least in our mountains (for skiers, boarders, and anyone who is interested in our state's water supply).

Snowpack: Idaho's water lifeline

It's still early in the season, so the term 'snowpack' may not seem all that important yet. While that might be true to a point considering there is still plenty of time for Mother Nature to do her thing and bring our state the snow it needs (again, more so in the mountains), it's still something worth checking in on from time to time. After all, winter snowpack is a lifeline in Idaho.

It's a lifeline for farmers who depend on a steady supply of water through the hot, dry summer months. It's a lifeline for skiers and boarders who want to take advantage of the outdoors in the winter months, and for those who want to spend their summer out on the state's many lakes and reservoirs. And, as we learned last year, it's important to follow even in record-setting years for flooding potential along the state's rivers.

Okay, so what does it look like right now?

In short, the snowpack picture is a little bit of a mixed bag right now, depending on which basin you look at.

Let's dissect this a bit, shall we?

Many of our basins in central Idaho (Salmon, Big Wood, Little Wood, Big Lost, Little Lost) are actually right about on par with what's considered the median (or middle ground) for this time of year. Essentially, there's about as much snowpack there as we could maybe expect to see this time of year (likely thanks to a wet, snowy fall before Thanksgiving).

On the other hand, many of our basins in southern Idaho don't exactly have the snowpack that they 'should,' or maybe typically do at this time of year. For example, the Boise basin is sitting at about 77 percent of normal, meaning...yeah, it wouldn't hurt to start seeing more snow soon. The Payette basin is in decent shape, but if things stay dry for much longer, that number will drop. The basins highlighted in orange or red point out the areas that need the most help (or could use the precipitation the most). Right now, the Owyhee and Goose basins are technically in the worst shape.

**Again, it's important to note that we haven't even made it to winter yet, so a lot can and will change with this picture in the coming weeks and months. **

What's the big picture?

These two maps above can give a good hint as to what's going on across the west. The first map (which you'll have to click on to enlarge) shows the snow depth at 980 SNOTEL sites (where snow depth data is pulled automatically every day) across the region. The idea here: Most of the dots (representing the different SNOTEL sites) are either white or yellow, meaning most areas in our region have less than, say, 50-55 inches of snow (estimated). There are a few spots (primarily western Wyoming and along the Cascades in Washington) where there is more snow.

Those numbers may not mean much standing by themselves. The second image though, shows how the amount of snow at these different sites compares to the 'median' snowpack for this time of year (think: middle ground between highest and lowest recordings).

The red and orange dots signify SNOTEL sites that are seeing less snow than normal right now (or less than 100 percent of what's considered normal for this time of year). White, green and blue colors represent the SNOTEL sites with more snow than normal for this time of year (between 100-200 percent of median).

IN SHORT: We know much of the west has been off to a dry start so far this month, and as a result, some of our snowpack numbers are starting to fall behind. Fingers crossed that this trend won't continue.

What comes next?

Ideally, a storm or two (or three or four). Mainly for the mountains' sake, but also to help sweep out the inversion. We need to do some house cleaning around here! Thankfully, it looks like a system is taking aim at the region Friday through the weekend in some capacity (it's still a bit early to be confident in the specifics), but it should be enough to send the inversion packing.

Right now, it looks as if wet weather could move in anytime between Friday and Sunday (models aren't in great agreement yet). With that, it could bring a chance for valley rain showers (it looks overall too warm for snow), and moutnain snow, as snow levels would sit between 4,000-6,000 ft. through the weekend. At this point, I think there's the potentail for some accumulating snow in our West Central Mountains Saturday leading into Sunday. Stay tuned though, as we'll know more about this change in the next few days.

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