El Niûo's wrath hit sporadically around the West this winter, leaving more headlines than it did snow or rain. But where it hit, it hit hard, and punches are still being thrown.
Last fall, the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration predicted El Niûo would force the
global jet streams north, causing warmer and drier weather in the
Northern Rockies and heavy rain and snow in the arid
In general, the agency was right on
target. It has been a mild winter across the Northwest and the
Northern Rockies, producing only 75 percent of the average snowpack
in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Some basins, however, received as
little as 35 percent of their snow, while others experienced 150
percent of their average.
Oregon and Washington
have seen average or below average snows, and Oregon will be spared
the severe flooding the state experienced last year. The Olympic
mountains were the only anomaly, with 143 percent of average
Havoc along the West
A record 13.68 inches of El Niûo rain
drenched Los Angeles, Calif., in January, washing homes into the
Pacific and ringing up a multibillion-dollar damage tab. Floods
drowned wine country and devastated strawberries, lettuce, cabbage
and artichokes. In some areas the ground has been too wet to plant
crops at all, hiking up produce prices around the country and
causing "temporary shortages that will last until we dry out enough
for the growing season to truly start," according to the Berkeley
Bowl food co-op in Berkeley, Calif.
have also produced bumper crops of pollen, mold and weeds. Bernard
Geller, a Santa Monica allergist, told the Associated Press that
the rye grass planted on eroded slopes to prevent mudslides in
flood-prone areas is making the allergy-afflicted miserable this
People are sniffling in the California
and Nevada mountains, too, but not because of pollen. After a
lackluster winter, the Sierras have been hammered by snow since
early February, boosting snowpack to 150 percent of average. "After
22 straight days of snow, it stopped two days ago," said Squaw
Valley, Calif., ski patroller Curtis Crooks on April 17. "There is
nearly 18 feet of snow on the mountain and the spring snows are
John Gangemi of American
Whitewater in Bigfork, Mont., says boaters from around the world
are making a "mass exodus' to California to enjoy the enormous
runoff that should keep rivers and reservoirs swollen all
Southwest: Javelinas and deer mice
El Niûo rains have pummeled the Southwest,
amounting to as much as 375 percent of average in some basins.
Agriculture in southern New Mexico and Arizona will benefit from
above-average reservoir supplies. In the northern regions of each
state, where water supplies are primarily dependent on Colorado and
Utah snowpacks, reservoir supplies will be
Overall, the Southwest is experiencing
an early greening of the desert, triggering blooms of rare flowers.
That also means good green pickings for the oddball desert swine,
the javelina. With more forage available over a larger area, says
the Arizona Daily Star, javelina will expand their diet from their
mainstay, prickly pear cactus, and not congregate at isolated
watering holes as they do in normal
Another animal benefiting from winter
rains is the Southwestern deer mouse, the prime carrier of
hantavirus (HCN, 7/26/93). With rodent populations on the rise in
the Southwest, epidemiologist Robert Shope told the Associated
Press that people should avoid contact with rodents and their
feces, wear face masks when sweeping out garages, cabins and
attics, seal up holes in their homes and check sleeping bags before
bedding down on Southwestern camping trips.
abound, too. "Termite "swarmers' are going crazy," says Brent
Hudson, an exterminator in Albuquerque, N.M. "It's great business
for us, but termites sure do a business on homes. This is the worst
I have seen it in seven years."
Arizona, winter storms made life difficult on the Navajo
reservation, where mud and snow blocked access to supplies and
firewood, leading tribal leaders to declare a state of emergency.
"The muddy ruts are deep, snow is knee-level and it is difficult to
contact anyone," reported the Navajo Times last
Colorado, caught between the warmer northern
climes and the soggy south, was lucky. "As winter nears its end,"
says Mike Gillespie of the Natural Resource Conservation Service in
Lakewood, Colo., "I haven't even mentioned El Niûo in my
annual reports. It's almost a non-issue."
snowpacks are 80 to 90 percent of average, which is two-thirds of
last winter's record load. Even in areas with less than the usual
snowpack, however, most reservoirs will not suffer a deficit this
summer. Last year's above-average precipitation provided enough
water to compensate for this winter's shallow
People and rivers that don't receive
their water from reservoirs, however, may feel the pinch from the
limited snowpack if summer turns out to be hot and
"It's April, but don't assume winter is
over," warns Paul Henderson, chief interpreter for Canyonlands
National Park in Moab, Utah. "During the 1982-'83 El Niûo
year, the Rockies got the bulk of their snow in spring, delaying
the peak flow on the Colorado River from May until late June.
What's up in the mountains has to come downstream sooner or later."
* JT Thomas, HCN
You can contact
* National Oceanic and Atmospheric
* Western Regional Climate
National Weather Service: 301/713-0622,