Drought across British Columbia could worsen this year, experts and leaders are warning, as concern grows over a low snowpack in the mountains.
Snow levels are 39 per cent below normal, according to a B.C. River Forecast Centre report released Thursday — significantly worse than this time last year, when levels were 19 per cent below normal.
Snowpack levels remain below the median for every river basin in the province, with four in every five automated weather stations reporting levels in the bottom 20 per cent of all years since they started collecting data.
The snowpack is especially sparse across the South Coast, ranging from 30 per cent of normal on Vancouver Island to 47 per cent in the Lower Fraser region.
Thursday's bulletin shows the Stikine region in northwestern B.C. has the highest snowpack in the province at 90 per cent of the average.
Coree Tull, co-chair of the B.C. Watershed Security Coalition, told CBC News that the limited precipitation in the province's mountains means reservoirs are not being replenished.
That could have devastating knock-on effects on rivers across B.C. — and everyone who depends on water for their livelihoods, such as agriculture, and for essentials like firefighting efforts.
"We are definitely concerned," Tull said. "Because we're in a multi-year drought … it really raises alarm bells.
"We start to get really concerned about what the spring, summer and fall will look like this year, given the results that we're seeing."
She said in the past year, farmers in some areas have had to cut off irrigation to their crops in some areas, and there has even been shortages of water for battling out-of-control wildfires.
Metro Vancouver Regional District hydrologists take measurements of snow levels at a survey site at Palisade Lake in the Capilano watershed on Thursday. (CBC)
'Early warning sign'
Premier David Eby said the new data reinforces what is "the most dramatic drought conditions that we've seen" in B.C.
"Knowing the farmers didn't have enough water to feed their cattle this summer — knowing the forest fire impacts we've seen — I'm really worried," Eby said at an unrelated press conference Thursday.
"The weather that we're having is so unpredictable and so extreme right now that the economic impacts, and the human impacts, feel much more acute.
"We're the early warning sign for the rest of Canada for what's coming with climate change."
Close to 100 wildfires continue to smoulder in the province, holdovers from last year's record-breaking fire season, the premier added.
Peter Marshall, a field hydrologist with Metro Vancouver, said the last time researchers saw such a poor year was in 2015. If snow conditions remain low, the regional district could face challenges finding enough drinking water, he said.
"It's snow-free in many places in mid-February here, which is very unusual," Marshall told CBC News at a monitoring station at Palisade Lake near North Vancouver.
"Typically at this time of year... you'd see an average of two metres of snow, so a little bit over my head. Right now it's patchy snow."
He said the conditions are forcing Metro Vancouver to already start planning for water restrictions and conservation this summer, "unless we see a lot more snow in the coming months."
The latest data released Thursday by the B.C. River Forecast Centre shows low snow levels across many parts of the province, particularly the South Coast and Vancouver Island. (Submitted by B.C. River Forecast Centre)
Concern for salmon
Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said he can't recall another time when he was so concerned about the snowpack levels.
He said salmon depend on snowmelt to feed streams and rivers at every stage in their life cycle, from hatching out of gravel to returning from the ocean to spawn.
Hill said last summer's drought led to several fish mortality events, where rivers either ran dry or the shallow water heated up to temperatures lethal for salmon.
The lower the snowpack heading into the spring, he said, the earlier waterways are likely to reach flow levels that are "critically low" for salmon and their ecosystems.
"We could get lucky and have a nice wet, rainy, spring and summer and it could take a lot of the sting out of this. But if it's not, then we're in trouble," he said.
Thumbnail image courtesy to CBC News.
This article, written by David P. Ball, was originally published for CBC News.