As abnormally dry conditions continue, Skagit River water reserves are now forecast to reach uncharacteristic lows this summer.
Seattle City Light, which operates three hydroelectric dams on the upper Skagit River, recently announced it anticipates its largest reservoir, Ross Lake, will see water levels 25 feet lower than normal this summer.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, which compiles state water supply outlook reports, water levels in the Skagit River may dip to about 77 percent of normal over the summer.
Seattle City Light doesn’t anticipate impacts to the water supply.
However, recreation around the man-made lake tucked in the North Cascades will be impacted, according to the utility and North Cascades National Park Service Complex.
“Ross Lake National Recreation Area ... will be open to visitors. However, the lower level of the lake will impact the availability of some visitor facilities, services and recreational opportunities,” Seattle City Light said in a May 3 blog post.
Campgrounds are closed, boating is limited and low water levels will change the scenery for hikers as well.
“While trails along Ross Lake will be usable, there could be up to several hundred feet of exposed rock, dirt and wood between the water and the normal shoreline,” Seattle City Light’s blog states.
The National Park Service has closed all campsites accessed by boat on Ross Lake as well as the boat ramps at Hozomeen Campground, according to a news release. Visitors are also restricted from walking in the exposed lake bed.
“The exposed lakebed provides difficult terrain and hazards from unstable trees, and visitor use within the exposed lakebed could impact park resources,” the news release states.
The cause of the lower than normal water reserves is a lack of snowpack and spring rain, combined with the need to release water in order to protect chum salmon eggs in the Skagit River.
The Skagit River basin received 4.4 inches of snow and rain during February and March, marking the driest March since 1992, according to Seattle City Light.
With less water than usual coming from tributaries upstream of Rockport, the utility had to release extra water starting in March and expects to continue to do so until early June unless conditions improve.
The use of that extra water to protect fish will mean lower levels in Ross Lake, making boat ramps and docks inaccessible and increasing the risk of boaters encountering rocks and logs usually submerged in water.
A photo taken by Seattle City Light snow surveyor Chase Kingslein shows parts of the lake bed have already gone dry.
According to the May Washington Water Supply Outlook Report released Wednesday, the three reservoirs behind Seattle City Light dams on the Skagit River were at 72 percent of normal and at 39 percent of overall capacity at the start of the month.
The Skagit River reservoirs, including Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams, are expected to maintain the federally-required minimum streamflows in the river, according to the water supply report. Doing so will come at the expense of some recreation in the treasured Ross Lake National Recreation Area.
“Ross Reservoir is not expected to fill this year due to a lack of snow. Lake levels are expected to remain 25 feet below full pool which will strand many camping and boating areas for the summer,” the water supply report states.
The last time Ross Lake was significantly lower than normal was in 2001, at 1,590 feet, according to Seattle City Light and U.S. Geological Survey data.
The lake is forecast to dip as low as 1,567 feet this summer — lower than any time since the USGS began collecting data in the 1960s. Normal levels are about 1,600 feet.
The first week of May has brought warm, dry weather and the trend is forecast to continue for the region through the summer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 30- and 90-day forecasts.
Reservoirs in Washington state are overall below average, according to the National Water and Climate Center. It is one of three states whose reservoirs are in the red so far, out of 11 monitored by the center.
For more information on Ross Lake recreation impacts: nps.gov/noca/planyourvisit/faqs-for-ross-lake-low-water-lake-levels-2019.htm.