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Snowpack vanishing

| January 27, 2005 11:00 PM

By Roger Morris Western News Publisher

The weather outside continues to be frightful for all the regional ski areas and summer streamflows.

Turner Mountain is closed until further notice — or until Mother Nature delivers some fluffy white stuff to cover the rapidly disappearing snow. Silver Mountain near Kellogg, Idaho, remains closed, Schweitzer Mountain at Sandpoint, Idaho, is open with ³limited operations.² At Mount Spokane, they¹re scheduling a Snow Dance Party on Friday night in hope of changing the weather pattern. Fernie, in British Columbia, is reporting half their lifts open and a quarter of the ski runs available with questionable snow on the lower reaches of the ski mountain. Big Mountain at Whitefish is reporting spring-like conditions but warning skiers to watch for ³unmarked hazards² and the entire Hellroaring Basin is closed until more snow accumulates at the bottom.

³I can¹t remember a year like this,² said Bruce Zwang, spokesman for Kootenai Winter Sports, managers of the Turner Mountain Ski area north of Libby.

³We have had periodic drought years but we were able to get open for skiing, but I can¹t remember one like this,² Zwang said.

In 1962, the first year the infamous Turner T-bar was installed, the ski hill opened for three weekends, Zwang said.

³But in modern memory, I can¹t remember a year like this,² he said.

The popular snow hill opened for skiing Jan. 7-8 as the Libby area went from sub-zero weather to fresh heavy snow. A day later it began raining on the fresh deep powder and continued as the temperatures warmed up.

The heavy, moisture-laden snowpack became extremely prone to avalanche and eventually the rain and warmer temperatures whittled down the snow cover.

Turner has been closed since.

Presently Turner is reporting 25 inches on the top of the mountain and bare slopes down below, where the new ski lodge is waiting for the season to begin.

The snow-pack across western Montana and north central Idaho is a near record low, according to Ray Nickless from the National Weather Service in Missoula.

³Snow that has fallen from October through the last week in January is ranging between 52 and 71 percent of normal,² Nickless reported. ³Many of the snowpack monitoring sites operated by the Natural Resources Conservation service are setting new record low values for the end of January.²

Statewide, mountain snow water content averages 31 percent below last year, according to Roy Kaiser, water supply specialist for the NRCS in Bozeman.

In the Libby area, precipitation totals are lagging 2.69 inches behind average for the winter months.

³The snowfall season has gotten off to a much worse start than last year at this time,² Kaiser said. ³With about half of the snowfall season remaining. There is still time to see major improvements in the mountain snowpack.²

Zwang and local skiers are hoping that happens.

³We¹re basically waiting for more snow,² Zwang said. ³We¹re ready to go. We¹re not calling it quits this season. We¹re just hanging tough waiting for more snow.²

The Kootenai Basin as a whole is 62-75 percent of average for streamflow forecast for the April-July 2005 period, according to NRCS statistics.

³Should Montana remain in dry weather patterns, the spring and summer streamflow outlook is worse than expected last year and once again there will be a higher reliance on spring and summer rain,² Kaiser said.

Nickless was more alarming.

³If snowpack trends continue to remain the same or decline further, streams will be at very low flows in the summer,² he said. ³Low streamflows could lead to possible water shortages across western Montana and north central Idaho.²

The short-term weather forecast for northwest Montana has dry conditions continuing into next week with a chance of slight precipitation and warmer than usual temperatures. The long-range forecast for the month of February has continued dry conditions but a return to more seasonal temperatures.

³We have a persistent ridge pattern blocking any systems from coming over Montana,² said Patrick Gilchrist, meteorologist.