The drought that dried out Vancouver Island last summer isn’t likely to return this year, according to B.C River Forecast Centre head forecaster Dave Campbell.
“What we’re seeing right now is 99 percent of normal snowpack so pretty much what you’d expect a normal snowpack to be at this time of year,” said Campbell of Vancouver Island’s current conditions.
Last year, Vancouver Island was at only 15 per cent of normal snowpack in April.
While the River Forecast Centre doesn’t measure the Alberni Valley’s water sources—China Creek and Lizard Lake for the city and Beaver Creek, and Lacy Lake for Cherry Creek—Campbell assured that what is measured Island-wide is representative of Port Alberni.
China Creek (shown below) is as full as it should be this time of year, said City of Port Alberni waterworks chargehand Amar Giri.
(story continues below photo)
“Everything is topped up, it’s all full and it’s overflowing,” he said.
“The only thing that doesn’t come out in the number, and is an unusual thing this year, there’s quite a strong gradient from the high elevation sites to the mid elevation sites,” he said.
“There’s really no snow at the mid-elevation and then all of a sudden there’s a distinct snow line and above that we’re looking fine.”
That mark, Campbell added, is at about 1,000 metres.
“There’s much less of a transition than there would be in a normal year so the 99 per cent is probably overestimating some of that.”
The hard snow line is likely the result of a warmer than usual winter.
“We’re seeing that province-wide and it’s really the result of the warm winter we’ve had; and particularly when we get to Vancouver Island, it’s already much warmer than the rest of the province,” said Campbell.
“Snow in the upper mountains is really sensitive to changes in temperature and this year it’s been two or three degrees warmer than normal throughout the entire winter,” he said, “and that’s enough really to push that snow line up 300, 400, 500 metres above where it would normally be.”
Apart from being warmer than the Interior, Vancouver Island’s mountains are mostly lower in elevation than mountains are on the mainland.
“A lot of the terrain that we’ve got on the Island is below that so it tends to hit the Island a bit more than other areas.”
The Alberni Valley is a little more unique, said Campbell, with a lot more mountains hitting the upper elevations with more snow on them—meaning that the region is probably doing better than others on the Island.
“We do a forecast for the Cowichan River and our forecast has that at about 75 per cent of normal and it’s probably reflecting some of that lacking mid-elevation snow,” he said.
“That’s probably at the extreme end compared to the Alberni area where you’ve got a lot of the alpine terrain that exists on the Island and that does feed into the watershed… so it’s probably not quite as bad as some of these watersheds that are more near that mid-elevation threshold.”
(See the China Creek intake in the video below)
Lizard Lake is sitting at 728 metres of elevation, surrounded by mountains that get covered in snow during the winter months. Now they’re clear of any, according to Giri.
“There’s no snow there now, which is pretty standard for this time of year,” said Giri.
Typically, the water supply begins to go down in late May,
“As water stops flowing into Lizard Lake it will be time for restrictions,” Giri added.
In 2015, under the harshest drought conditions Vancouver Island had seen in recent history, the city introduced water restrictions on June 8. According to city engineer Guy Cicon, that was the earliest date the city had introduced restrictions in more than two decades of his working with the municipality.
“I only recall having water restrictions twice in the past many years,” he said at the time.
“It isn’t something that we normally do.”
The city went to stage 2 restrictions for the first time Cicon could remember on July 14 but continued to do better than many other places on the Island. The Regional District of Nanaimo went to stage 4 and others on the Island reached stage 2 much earlier than Port Alberni did.
This year, with a much less severe situation, the city is taking a wait-and-see approach. Currently, two regional districts on the Island have already imposed water restrictions for 2016. The Regional District of Nanaimo has gone to their first stage of water restrictions, which prohibits watering between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Comox Valley Regional District is also at stage 1 but according to their water conservation bylaw, the restrictions are year-round.
Campbell said that while the River Forecast Centre doesn’t monitor watersheds specifically, the Island is in good shape.
“We’re definitely not in as severe of a situation as we saw last year. That snow line was much higher than we saw this year and it was essentially above where the land was and so we didn’t have much snow at all. We’re definitely coming into this season in much better shape,” he said.
The Island also doesn’t rely on snowpacks for its water supply as much as the mainland does.
“In a normal year, there’s only so much terrain at that higher elevation that receives snow and as a result most of that water that’s cycled through the watersheds here really comes from rainfall rather than snow. So the less snow at mid-elevation will have some effect but it’s not quite as dramatic as rivers in the interior part of the province where most of the flow comes from that melt,” Campbell said, adding that the effects of snowpacks won’t be felt till late summer.
“But certainly less snow at the middle elevations will add some pressure as we get to the latter part of the summer.”