Juneau power supplies holding despite low snowfall

February brought a foot less snow than usual

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

El Niño's hold brought warmer temperatures and less snowfall than normal to Juneau last month, but the town's hydroelectric power reservoirs are in good shape, according to Alaska Electric Light and Power.

Juneau received 6.2 inches of snow in February, almost a foot below the normal 18 inches. The grand total for snowfall this season is 39 inches, or 41.8 inches below the normal of 80.8 inches through February, according to the National Weather Service.

While the lack of snow has been trouble for local skiers, Alaska Electric Light and Power's hydroelectric power needs have been quenched with rain. The reservoirs are supplied with a combination of melting snow and rain, said Scott Willis, generation engineer with the utility.

"Snowpack is light this year, but precipitation is ahead of normal," he said. "Our reservoirs are higher than they normally are this time of year, but not anywhere near spilling."

The utility can't generate energy from water that spills out of reservoirs, and a shortfall of hydropower would mean using more expensive diesel generators. Most of Juneau's hydroelectric power comes from two large lakes at the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project south of town.

Snettisham has received 101 inches of precipitation since October, up from a normal of 92 inches. At this point, the reservoirs have space for more water, Willis said.

"The timing is a little bit messed up this year, but that's not going to hurt us," he said.

February was the fifth consecutive month in Juneau with above-normal temperatures, according to the National Weather Service. While cold temperatures took hold between Feb. 19 and 23, the average temperature last month was nearly 3 degrees above normal.

This winter's warmer weather is tied to El Niño, a global weather phenomenon that occurs every four to five years, according to Paul Shannon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau. In an El Niño year, water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean's tropical regions rise enough to alter ocean currents, the jet stream and global weather patterns.

El Niño usually - but not always - brings warmer temperatures to Southeast Alaska, Shannon said.

"In a normal El Niño year, we'll get the bulk of the season snowfall in February and March," he said. "That's certainly not panning out yet."

Winter purists, however, may be able to revel in colder temperatures forecast later this week. March's lions and lambs aside, colder temperatures should take hold by Thursday with lows hitting 5 to 10 degrees on Friday, according to this morning's forecast.

"It does look like we're going to set up with cold air over Alaska and the Yukon," Shannon said. "We'll continue with that at least through the weekend."

Juneau's Eaglecrest Ski Area was reporting 15 inches of snow at the base of the mountain this morning with 74 inches at the top. The ski area reopened Feb. 22 after a 1 1/2 month hiatus because of minimal snow.

Business Manager Gary Mendivil said 472 skiers and snowboarders took advantage of new snow Saturday. Skier numbers for Sunday weren't available yet.

"We had sunshine on Sunday with broken clouds," he said. "Saturday it was snowing pretty heavily."

• Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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