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Low snowpack could be felt this summer

Whistler not dependent on snow for water, but is watching the situation closely



In terms of snowfall, 2008-09 has been well below average with just 437 centimetres falling from the start of November to the end of January at Pig Alley on Whistler Mountain.

That's about 249 cm less than the same period the previous winter, and 408 cm less than the year before that, when Whistler experienced a record snowfall in November.

Since 2002-03, Whistler and Blackcomb snowfall has been over 600 cm in the first three months of the season, with the exception of the winter of 2004-05, where just 184 cm fell - the worst season on record for the resort until 385 cm fell in March, April and May.

While a low snowpack has a direct impact on skiing and other forms of recreation, it can also have an impact on urban areas, agricultural lands, power producers and others that depend on snow runoff for water supplies.

Last week the province of B.C. released an information bulletin on the state of the snowpack around the province, warning communities on the south coast, interior and Vancouver Island to expect less runoff than normal.

Snowpacks on Vancouver Island, the South Coast, southern portions of the mid-Fraser and Southern Interior have below normal snowpacks, ranging from 60 to 75 per cent of the norm.

And while less snow is part of the problem, the southwest of the province also experienced almost three weeks of rain and warm weather in early January that caused the snowpack to melt prematurely and led to flooding in some areas. In Whistler, the current on-mountain snowpack is 133 cm, which is about 106 cm less than this time last year.

That could change with more snow falling through March and April this year, and rainfall could take the place of snow melt in filling municipal reservoirs around the province, but it could also mean that water conservation measures could be introduced early this summer.

Brian Barnett, general manager of environmental services for the Resort Municipality of Whistler, says the municipality is following the situation with the snowpack.

"We're well aware of the situation," he said. "But with respect to water restrictions it's really a function of the weather. If we have a cool, wet summer there's less need for irrigation and less demand on the water system, where if it's a long, dry and hot summer then water restrictions could be necessary."

Barnett says the RMOW does not have a large reservoir capacity so the municipality can't store much of the annual snow runoff, but he says it is still important at certain times of the year. Whistler generally relies more on rain and glacier melt in the summer, he adds, although he says they don't have any statistics on how much of the water supply comes from snow melt.

Starting in May, surface water will be less of an issue for Whistler in general. Currently the community gets 40 to 45 per cent of its water supply from groundwater sources, or wells. A new well near Rainbow Park could start pumping water as early as May, and then more than half of Whistler's water will come from groundwater sources.

The RMOW bylaws allow the municipality to start restricting water use as early as May 15. Although it's early, Barnett says they are prepared to do it if the situation arises.

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