British Columbia

Late snow not enough to keep B.C. wet in summer

It's finally snowing on Vancouver's Cypress Mountain ski hill but not enough to ease concerns that the El Nino weather pattern B.C. is experiencing could lead to water shortages and forest fires this summer.
Lindsey Jacobellis launches off a jump during the women's World Cup snowboardcross event at Cypress Mountain in February 2009. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

It's finally snowing on Vancouver's Cypress Mountain ski hill but not enough to ease concerns that the El Nino weather pattern B.C. is experiencing could lead to water shortages and forest fires this summer.

With temperatures dropping and heavy snow in the forecast, the ski hill on Vancouver's North Shore announced on Tuesday it was reopening to the public after hosting several events during last month's Olympic Games.

The venue was shut down two weeks before the start of the Games because of unseasonably warm wet weather. That left organizers scrambling to truck and helicopter snow into the resort, so it would be ready in time.

The mid-season closure was blamed on the El Nino climate pattern, which brought warm weather to the B.C. coast and affected more than just Cypress.

El Nino leads to warning

On Monday, Environment Minister Barrie Penner warned that snowpack levels in the mountains across the entire province are low, which could lead to summer water shortages across the province.

"We've actually seen the snowpack in the mountains in B.C. decrease starting in January, which is quite unusual," Penner said. "Usually, you can expect more accumulations in January and February."

For some locations in B.C., the January and February average temperatures were the warmest or close to the warmest on record, said Penner.

Many B.C. communities rely on melting snow to feed rivers and other water sources in the summers. The heavy snow forecast for many mountain areas this week might be too little too late.

"This cooler weather this week will help, but it's not going to be enough to stem the tide," said Penner.

Usually by this time of year, about 80 per cent of the B.C. mountain snowpack has accumulated, and only four to six weeks of winter remain to accumulate the rest, said provincial officials.

Water shortage concerns

For communities like Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, the snowfall in the mountains this month is critical, according to municipal spokesperson Katherine Jeffcoat.

"A large portion of our local snowpack often arrives in March, so with current weather conditions favouring some snowfall in the next few days, we're hoping to see those snowpacks increase," she said.

Last year, a hot, dry summer left the city with a severe water shortage, and lawns in the Fraser Valley community went unwatered.

"In previous years, we've seen a higher level than we have right now, so the levels are definitely down for 2010," said Jeffcoat. "Certainly, if conditions are the same as they were last year, we'll see similar bans go into effect."

This year, the city is taking the threat of water restrictions seriously, spending $4.5 million on new water meters in an effort to curb usage, said Jeffcoat.

Okanagan not yet concerned

In the province's Okanagan region, which was plagued by wildfires during last summer's dry spell, the snowpack sits at about 86 per cent of the annual average.

Brian Jamieson, the manager of the Westbank Irrigation District, said he's not worried yet about a repeat of last year's fires.

"I think it's still too early to be overly concerned," he said. "You know, we're doing everything we can to monitor the situation. The snowpack, in our case, is better than last year's.

"As April approaches, and as we make further assessments of the snowpack, we'll go from there."

But if the El Nino conditions persist through spring, above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation can be expected to continue, the provincial authorities warned.

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