The importance of snow in our watershed

The importance of snow in our watershed

In the fall, many of us wait patiently as the temperatures drop and the mountains surrounding Sandpoint slowly become covered with snow. One of the many benefits to living in north Idaho in the winter is the multitude of recreational activities available to us once the snow hits the ground. However, snow is more important to us than just providing outdoor opportunities – it also helps sustain our ecosystems and provides year-round benefits to us all

Thankfully Schweitzer has had enough snow to stay open and keep our local economy going, despite COVID-19 restrictions and implications. However, this winter has been noticeably wetter compared to previous years. We’ll get a good few inches here and there, but too soon the sun, higher temperatures, and rain take it away again. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) National Water and Climate Center data, the Northern Panhandle Region’s snow water equivalent (SWE) is at 94% of the 1981-2010 median. Multiple other regions, mainly in southern Idaho, have less than 89% of the median. However, these percentages have been increasing in the past month – at the end of January we were only one of four regions above 90% SWE of NRCS 1981-2010 median and only one region (Clearwater) was over 90% at the end of December. 

Retrieved from NRCS’s Snow Survey website on February 24, 2021

We’re grateful that we live in a snowier region of Idaho, but it’s still troubling what the consequences of a decreased snowpack may be later this year. After wildfires raged across the Pacific Northwest last summer, it’s easy to worry about the potential for wildfires in our area. Less snowpack in the winter and warmer temperatures in the summer can lead to drier forests and increased risk of a spark starting a blaze.

In addition, habitat for our fish is already threatened by increased development around our streams, warming temperatures in the summer, and aquatic invasive species that compete for resources with our native species. Decreased snowpack also means less water in our streams later in the summer, which can increase fish mortality due to poor habitat conditions and decreased spawning habitat. Plus, if the snow melts too quickly in the spring, it can lead to flooding – which is common in our area due to the high water table. 

Snow coverage is also extremely important for regulating our earth’s temperature. Snow cover reflects about 80-90% of the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere, which helps cool the planet. Plus, this same blanket of snow helps to hold heat in the ground, prevent ground moisture from evaporating into the atmosphere, and protect organisms and the soil below from changes in the air temperature. Unfortunately, warmer temperatures due to climate change are shortening the amount of time snow is on the ground in much of the US.

The amount of snow we get in the winter is also important for our groundwater supply and drinking water sources. As snow melts, it drains into the nearby rivers and lakes or helps replenish groundwater reserves. Our forests are extremely important for capturing snow and letting it slowly melt into the ground as it becomes absorbed by the soil. Compacted soil or paved surfaces reduce the amount of water that can be soaked up by the ground, resulting in decreased water reserves later in the year. In the Sandpoint area, our drinking water comes from Little Sand Creek, which drains off the base of the Selkirk Mountains, and Lake Pend Oreille, which is fed by hundreds of tributaries in our forested areas. We rely on snowpack in our surrounding forests for the clean, clear water in our homes. 

On the bright side, graphs provided by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) predict that our area will see below normal temperatures and above average precipitation in March. These conditions will likely contribute to a healthy snowpack as spring approaches.

Although we have very little control on how much snow falls in a given year or how long it stays on the ground, it’s important to understand the major role snow plays in our water cycle. Having a healthy snowpack not only allows us to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors during winter, but also provides necessary resources for us and the surrounding ecosystems. Finally, remember small actions, such as reducing your gas emissions into the atmosphere by driving your car less or planting a garden to increase water absorption by the soil, all help contribute to preserving our aquatic ecosystems and natural resources for future generations.