Low snowpack pushes search for changes

Crosscut archive image.

Gov. Jay Inslee visited the Roza Irrigation District last year.

A bill to help prepare for future Washington droughts is waiting in the wings of the state Legislature.

Underlining the urgency of that bill is Monday's temporary closure of the Sunnyside-based Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima River Basin. That's because the federal Bureau of Reclamation determined that there is inadequate water available for much of the area's farming. The district's water supply is at 47 percent of its normal capacity with the potential of dropping to 34 percent of it normal level.

The possibility of going so far below normal led to the BLM closing the district's water supply until later in the growing season. The district's board will meet on May 22 to discuss a restart date.

Low mountain snowpacks -- 16 percent of normal as of Monday -- have put nearly half of the state under drought conditions, according to the Washington Department of Ecology's web site on the drought. In all, 44 percent of the state is considered to be in drought conditions. A drought officially occurs when a river basin's water supply dips below 75 percent of normal with hardships for people, farmers and fish expected.

Thirty-eight of Washington's 62 river basins are below the 75 percent mark, according to Dave Christensen of the Ecology Department's water resources program. On Wednesday, he told a joint House-Senate committee on the state's drought situation that 15 percent of the state's rivers are at record lows. The main channel of the Walla Walla River has shrunk to the size of an average stream.

Some experts blame warm temperatures from global warming for the low snowpacks in Washington, while other scientists, who believe humans are causing warming, say that this particular weather pattern seems to be a natural variation unrelated to the larger phenomenon of climate change.

While much of Washington is suffering from drought, areas around Seattle, Tacoma and Everett appear to be able to cope with good water management for the next 40 years, said Alex Chen, planning director for the water segment of Seattle Public Utilities. Normal rainfalls offset the effects of low snowpacks. Water managers in those three areas used early rainfalls to keep reservoirs filled and managed those supplies well to cope with the potential effects of the low snowpacks, he said.

Meanwhile, a bill by Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Shoreline, passed the House and was awaiting a full Senate vote. It would tweak state regulations and procedures to prepare for future droughts. However, the end of the regular legislative session April 26 automatically sent the bill back to the House, which will have to pass it again in the current special session to return it to the Senate.

Christensen said the most vital part of that bill would authorize the Ecology Department to lease water from senior water rights owners in drought-affected basins in January and February of each year to set that water aside for higher priorities later in the year. The prospective recipients of the leased water include orchards, vineyards and hops farmers. The leased water could also be used to help fish survival in the basins.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8