It’s an odd thing for Western Washingtonians to see fires in the Olympics and water advisories in their mailboxes. But thanks to low snowpack and a long, dry summer, we've been asked to make like Californians and conserve.
Last weekend, though, the rains returned and all was right with the world. Now we’re OK to linger in the shower and flush our toilets normally, right?
Not quite, says Andy Ryan of Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). In fact, what we got (and are currently getting) is only enough to dampen the soil. We’ll need a lot more of this all through the fall before we can feel good about turning on the sprinkler again.
At the beginning of August, Seattle's system of drinking water reservoirs was down to about 30 billion gallons, more than 10 billion gallons less than average. As a result, cities around Puget Sound activated their water shortage contingency plans – four-stage processes designed to lighten water usage.
Stage 1 is the advisory stage, simply alerting people to the fact that water is low. Stage 2 asks for voluntary reduction of water usage, encouraging people to take shorter showers, let their lawns go brown and let the yellow mellow. Stage 3 is mandatory restrictions. Stage 4 is emergency curtailment, which could result in rate hikes and other more forceful methods to curb water use.
Seattle, Everett and Tacoma are currently at Stage 2, or voluntary reduction -- residents have received polite nudgings to let their lawns go “dormant” and only wash full loads of laundry and dishes. The tactic worked well, according to SPU: The cities reduced water usage by 10 percent over two weeks.
Then came last weekend’s powerful storm. Seattle got a dumping of just under two inches. The gutters filled and small creeks flowed down the city's steep streets. Two people were killed by falling trees.
But it wasn’t even enough to move the needle from Stage 2 to Stage 1, Ryan said. “Two inches was enough to get the soil damp,” he said. “The soil just soaked it all up.”
A Seattle Times article Tuesday showed just how dry that soil has been. Apparently the dusty dirt directly contributed to the high number of trees that fell over the weekend. "If the same storm had come in October," wrote Linda V. Mapes, "it would have been far less damaging. But coming when and how it did, it was a recipe for the arboreal destruction that has left so many residents of the Puget Sound region still in the dark Monday."
Ryan couldn’t say exactly how many inches of rain would bring levels back to normal. But because of almost non-existent snowmelt, the crawl back to normalcy will be fought by rainfall alone, which means we’ll need a lot more of it. In fact, Ryan said, we need at least another two inches before any of that water actually makes it through the dirt and feeds into the depleted system.
Puget Sounders have done well reducing water usage so far, but will that continue now that the rains have come? Ryan says he has faith in people to keep it up. Still, SPU’s twitter account has been active with reminders all day.
“Even though it’s raining,” read one tweet, “we all need to do our part to keep saving water.”