El Nino sweeps across the West

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El Nino'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 Nino would force the global jet streams north, causing warmer and drier weather in the Northern Rockies and heavy rain and snow in the arid Southwest.

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 snowpack.

Havoc along the West Coast

A record 13.68 inches of El Nino 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.

The rains 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 spring.

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 just beginning."

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 summer.

Southwest: Javelinas and deer mice

El Nino 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 average.

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 years.

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.

Bugs 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."

Elsewhere in 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 month.

It's not over

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 Nino in my annual reports. It's almost a non-issue."

Most 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 snowpack.

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 dry.

"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 Nino 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 intern

You can contact ...

* National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: 301/457-5005, www.noaa.gov/ENSO;

* Western Regional Climate Center: www.wrcc.sage.dri.edu/enso/enso.html;

* National Weather Service: 301/713-0622, www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hic/nho/updates.html.

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