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Potential for 'unusually low' snowpack has Whistler preparing for dry summer

South Coast mountains have just 13 per cent of normal snowpack for early April
IN SHORT SUPPLY? Whistler is preparing for a dry summer this year with snowpack levels at the community watershed at Rainbow Lake, pictured, potentially hitting "unusually low" levels, according to the RMOW. Photo by Mike Crane / Tourism Whistler

With the lowest confirmed snowpack on B.C.'s South Coast mountains in 30 years, Whistler is prepping for what could be a particularly dry summer.

On April 8, the B.C. Government's River Forecast Centre released new data showing that the South Coast mountains currently have just 13 per cent of the normal snowpack for this time of year.

Typically, snowpack levels, which are essential to keeping streams flowing through the summer, reach their peak in mid-April. But, although precipitation was above average across B.C. in March, most of it fell as rain due to unseasonably warm temperatures.

"At this point we're expecting earlier-than-usual low flows for the summer," explained River Forecast Centre hydrologist Tobi Gardner. Rivers and streams typically experience low-flow levels at the tail end of summer.

"The main caveat is if we get a dry spring and summer, that's going to accelerate that process."

In Whistler, the municipality is preparing for what may prove to be an "unusually low" snowpack in the 21 Mile Creek watershed, where the community gets most of its drinking water supply from, according to communications manager Michele Comeau.

"A combination of low snowpack, high temperatures, and low rainfall through the spring and summer could result in reduced surface and ground water availability," she added in an email. "If that comes to pass, the RMOW may need to implement higher-than-normal watering restrictions."

If the municipality determines the snowpack is low enough to be of concern, staff may engage a hydrogeologist to conduct a snowpack assessment in the 21 Mile Creek watershed, as it did in 2005 during similarly low snow conditions, Comeau said.

The ability to source water from 21 Mile Creek is also limited at times by periods of high turbidity, when the water has too many loose sediment particles to be acceptable for drinking. The municipality has installed a new trail around Rainbow Lake away from the creek intended to lower the level of sediment runoff into the watershed.

"What (the RMOW) actually found is there were a lot of people running off the new trail, so they were actually getting really high levels of sediment coming down, so we have an interrelation there between the importance of staying on the trail and our ability to have access to clean water," said Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment.

Fourteen groundwater wells drawn from underground aquifers supplement the water supplied by 21 Mile Creek. During dryer summer months, however, there's a greater chance that these wells will be overdrawn faster than they can be recharged, resulting in a water shortage.

The ramifications of such a low snowpack could also impact wildlife in the Whistler area, Ruddy explained.

"Rivers are going to have lower flow levels and higher temperatures, which will have an impact on salmon, and we don't know what knock-on effect that will have on species like grizzly bears that rely on seasonal salmon runs to fatten up before hibernation," she said. "The interlinkages are what we're talking about in the environmental community."

Residents should also keep an eye on safe wildfire management practices if Whistler experiences extended periods of hot, dry weather, advised deputy fire chief Chris Nelson, who said he's "never (seen a snowpack) this low" in his time at the department.

"There's a definite correlation between wildfire and the moisture content on the forest floor. Obviously the less moisture we have in the form of residual snow, the longer our fire season will be," he said.

Nelson recommended that Whistlerites have their properties assessed to determine if their homes are adequately fire-proofed. Visit for more information.

With historic droughts ravaging California, and Whistler's own potential water shortage, Ruddy said she expects that "the conservation ethics around water are going to really come out within the community" this summer.

"We feel like (our water supply is) very secure, but I think there's a lack of awareness in much of the community around the fact that there's work going on behind the scenes to figure out how we're going to secure our water supply long-term," she added.

One possible way to reduce Whistler's reliance on the watershed Ruddy suggested is exploring greywater systems.

"Those are very common around Europe where you're reusing water that's come off roofs or that's already gone through the sink or used to flush your toilet," she said. "But here there are easy (methods) to use rainwater runoff that we're not really utilizing currently."

Through the community's long-term sustainability plan, Whistler2020, a goal was set to reduce water consumption to 425 litres per capita per day. In 2011, that total was 536 litres.