With snow disappearing, state steps up drought preparations

By John Stang
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The Olympics, with Mount Pershing in the front on April 20, have very little snowpack this year.

By John Stang

Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday declared all of Washington to be in a drought, kicking in state-backed remedial measures on a scale never seen before.

People in the urban Puget Sound area are not feeling the direct effects. But rural Washingtonians -- especially farmers -- have been hit hard.

"We have some really tough months ahead of us," said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

Inslee said, "This summer, we can expect to see our lowest river levels in 64 years."

The drought is due to snowpacks running roughly 16 percent of what they have been normally. Melting snow feeds the steams, rivers and irrigation canals to make Washington's farm economy possible. The low snowpacks have been linked by some to global warming.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service recently surveyed 98 sites that normally would have snow at that time and found 66 free of snow, with 11 free of snow for the first time. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey found 78 percent of the state's streams below normal levels, according to the governor's office.

"On the Olympic Peninsula, where there would normally be 80 inches of snow now, flowers such as glacier lilies are blooming," Inslee said.

Crosscut archive image.
Maia Bellon Credit: John Stang

Bellon said it is unknown whether this year's low snow packs are an anomaly or a foreshadowing of several subsequent annual droughts, or some mix of the two scenarios. She added that climate change is a factor to consider in trying to understand snowpacks.

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. The Washington Department of Ecology has a web site on the drought. Until Friday, 44 percent of the state had been already designated as drought-stricken by the state.

The Ecology Department scraped up $1 million internally to deal with the crisis through June 30, and is seeking another $9.5 million for drought work in the state's 2015-2017 budget. The money could be used to drill wells, to help lease water rights from some owners for those in need of extra water, and to pump water from one location to another.

"Impacts are already severe in several areas of the state. Difficult decisions are being made about what crops get priority water and how best to save fish," Inslee said.

This year's drought is expected to destroy about $1.2 billion worth of crops. In 2013, Washington's farmers grew $10.1 billion worth of crops. The ripple effects, such as on livestock needing hay and on the economies of small agricultural towns, have not been calculated yet, said Kirk Robinson, deputy director of the Washington Department of Agriculture. Agriculture directly employs about 160,000 Washingtonians.

Irrigation districts are pondering when to cut off water and for how long. Farmers must decide which crops to save and which to sacrifice, or to let go fallow. The Sunnyside-based Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima River basin can expect a 50 percent reduction in crops harvested, with cherries the first likely to show the effects, Robinson said. The question will be how much water can be stockpiled for apples, hops and wine grapes.

The drought is also likely to hit hayfields. And dry land wheat is now in its second drought year.

"The big concern is what will happen next year if this continues," Robinson said.

City residents in the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett areas won't feel much effects from the drought because their water utilities have collected rain in their reservoirs in anticipation of low snowpacks -- and have managed that juggling act well, state officials said this week.

But this year's drought is sparking fears of extensive wildfires on the scale of those that devastated north-central Washington last year.

The Carleton Complex fires of 2014 were the largest in Washington's history -- covering 550 square miles in Chelan and Okanogan counties, destroying more than 300 homes, causing one death by a heart attack, and requiring 3,000 people to combat. Several lightning strikes started the fires. Dry conditions led to the flames spreading quickly and being hard to put out.

The Washington Department of Natural Resources handles wildfires, and is trying to learn from 2014 to prepare for another dry fire-prone summer. "We're pre-positioning the resources we have. But we don't have enough resources," said Mary Verner, deputy supervisor for DNR’s resource protection and administration division.

The drought will likely affect steelhead and Chinook salmon when they migrate upstream to spawn. The small streams off the main rivers -- where many fish spawn -- are expected to dry out first, blocking fish passage. State officials expect to have to dig channels to allow fish to migrate, or to catch the fish and truck them upstream to spawn.

This story was originally published on May 15 at 4:48 p.m. 


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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