Low snow pack levels across the province are raising concerns that B.C. may be facing another year of drought and intense wildfires.

According to a Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin released by the Province at the beginning of this month, “the provincial snow pack is extremely low”.

The data collected from 49 manual snow courses and 103 automated snow weather stations around the province indicate that snow pack is averaging just 56 per cent of normal, as opposed to Jan. 1, 2023 when the provincial average was 82 per cent of normal.

2023 saw higher than normal temperatures lasting into the autumn and winter months, as well as a lack of precipitation. The semi-arid Nicola Valley was affected by last year’s drought and has been impacted by low stream flow conditions in both the Nicola and Coldwater rivers.

The Merritt area is situated within the Lower Thompson Basin, which currently sits at a mere 36 per cent of normal.

Recently, there has been more seasonal precipitation, with a significant snowfall following a mid-winter cold snap, But with temperatures set to rise again, possibly persisting into February, the snow pack could be negatively impacted.

This may lead to reduced spring runoff, a relief for Merrittonians who were affected by the disastrous flooding of 2021, but could lead to water scarcity this summer.

“Low snow pack in January could be an early indicator of decreased flood hazard in the spring, but an increase in the potential for drought,” said Peter Lee, spokesperson for the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship.

With this in mind, local farmers and ranchers are already preparing for what could be a lengthy dry season. Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald, owners of Bar FX Ranch between Merritt and Spences Bridge, were among those hardest hit by B.C.’s disastrous 2021 wildfire season and the serious flooding which followed in the fall of that year. They are preparing for more extreme weather in 2024.

“I know we are thinking about irrigation, and wondering what this year may bring if there’s another drought,” said Rhonda.

“Of course, if we can’t irrigate crops, we can’t feed our cattle. While cattle prices may be high, so are our input costs, including hay if we have to buy it to feed the herd. We are also looking at the crown range we have available to us and planning a little differently for that this year. We will be putting more cattle in areas where the 2021 fires hit as there is lots of grass and water there, even in drought years, and putting fewer head on areas that were hard hit by the drought last year.”

The MacDonalds will have to reseed their fields this year as part of their flood recovery, but not all local producers will be doing the same.

“I do know of others who will not be reseeding this year in case their irrigation access becomes limited,” MacDonald explained.

“Older, established crops require less water than a new crop, and can withstand drought better.”

The Province has also announced a new round of funding through the Extreme Weather Preparedness for Agriculture program, providing up to $50,000 per applicant and per project category to assist producers in preparing for wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.

Still, it is possible that B.C. will avoid another summer of widespread wildfire and extreme drought.

“In a typical year, about half of the winter’s snow accumulation occurs by January first,” said Peter Lee, spokesperson for the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship.

“With more than three months left in the winter, the snow pack can still change significantly. Sustained precipitation that increases snow pack levels over the coming months would help lower the likelihood of drought conditions in the upcoming year.”