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Less snow could mean fewer floods, tame rapids

By Michael Hill

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 9:20 a.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, March 13, 2012 photo, Chris Melohusky releases a steelhead trout he caught in Buffalo Creek during the warm winter weather in Elma, N.Y. The scant snowfall this winter will continue to affect Northeast waterways this spring as the feeble snowpack melts away. Not only was this the fourth-warmest winter on record in the 48 contiguous states, but it was drier than average too. The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University reports below-average snow cover this winter at tracking stations from Maine to West Virginia.

David Duprey, Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — The scant snowfall this winter that thrilled commuters and discouraged skiers will continue to affect Northeast waterways this spring as the feeble snowpack melts away.

Less runoff means less of a chance of rivers and streams swelling their banks — which is good news for the flood-weary region but bad news for rafting companies that depend on rushing waters. It also could affect reservoir levels.

This the fourth-warmest winter on record for the 48 contiguous states as a whole. It also has been drier than normal in the west and southeast, though wetter conditions prevailed in the central and southern plains and some parts of the Ohio Valley.

The Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University reports below-average snow cover this winter at tracking stations from Maine to West Virginia.

Climate center climatologist Jessica Rennells said there is little to no snow on the ground in the Northeast to slowly melt into the spring soil. Torrential rains could still get the waters raging, but the mild winter decreases the chances of a replay of last spring when heavy snow melt plus rain caused flooding around the region.

"If you're a town downstream that gets these giant ice dams floods like happen in upstate New York, Vermont, all the hilly places, then it reduces the risks of the bigger floods," said Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences at Paul Smiths College.

The low snow conditions also are being welcomed by the managers of the multi-year dredging of the upper-Hudson. The PCB cleanup started slowly last spring due to severe flooding. But Gary Klawinski, the Environmental Protection Agency's dredging project manager, said they hope to get a faster start this year since there's not a big snow pack in the Adirondacks.

Melting snow lingering in the Adirondacks also gives spring whitewater rafting its turbo-boost, so guides are not happy with conditions this year. Wayne Failing of Lake Placid-based Middle Earth Expeditions doesn't expect the Hudson River gorge to hit intense class five rapids in April absent some heavy rains.

"The snow pack in the mountains is a big part of what makes April class five, and right now I'm raking my lawn. ... That's the depth of the snowpack," Failing said.

Reservoirs often get a boost in the spring from runoff, though U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Glenn A. Hodgkins cautioned there are other factors at play when it comes to reservoir levels.

"There's some potential if there's not as much snow melt runoff that they could start the summer season being below normal," he said. "But again, it's not that simple. Of course, it depends on how they manage it and what we get for rain and such."

Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondacks, for instance, is higher than normal for this time of year. And the mild winter is not expected to create storage issues for the massive reservoirs New York City maintains in and around the Catskill Mountains. City Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Corey Chambliss cited the record rains of 2011 and said snow levels are not uniquely low.

Parts of the state, including the Adirondacks, Catskills and Southern Tier near Binghamton are still recovering from devastating floods wrought by back-to-back tropical storms Irene and Lee that pounded the East Coast in late August and early September.

Stager said there ecological effects related to a light snowpack, too. He has noticed over the years that when there is less snow cover in the Adirondacks, trout lilies and other wildflowers show up earlier, meaning insects and migratory birds show up earlier.

"We just had the red-winged blackbird show up now, and that's relatively early in the last 20 years," Stager said. "When there's less snow on the ground then they can forage for worms and bugs."

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