Tightrope of floods, drought

Winter has broken its grip on the Okanagan Valley — snow is melting as temperatures hit double digits for the first time this year.

After two years of record flooding, attention is turning to the spring freshet.

Local snowpacks are below average, but right where they were at the same time in 2017, forcing water managers to balance a tightrope between planning for floods or drought.

Okanagan section head and Penticton dam manager Shaun Reimer says current modelling is recommending he keep the lake as high as possible, but lessons learned during 2017 has him lowering the lake slowly over the next few weeks.

“We are still probably 5-6 centimetres above what would be a typical lake elevation for this time of year, but we are trying to strike that balance between being careful of another 2017 in case it starts raining, and also being careful of the drought that could form.”

“Everyday that we see sunshine is more likely to be in that direction [drought] rather than flooding,” he added.

Reimer says what has been a relatively dry March so far is what differentiates this year from 2017; “In March, April and May of that year we almost had observable rain or some form of precipitation every day — 90 of the 92 days that made up those three months.”

South of the border, Washington State has been more aggressive with its drought forecasting, but Reimer says that is likely due to their reliance on the Similkameen River, which has a snowpack just 72 per cent of normal.

If the Okanagan swings into drought conditions this year, Reimer says there is no reason to panic, as the watershed has the ability to bounce back quickly if conditions lift in following years.

He pointed to 2003, 2009 and 2015 as drier years in recent memory.

“But fortunately the following years there was enough water to make up the difference and to basically fill the lake,” he said.

The severe multi-year drought of 1929-31 is regarded to the “benchmark” that the provincial government works to avoid by managing Okanagan Lake levels.

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