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Low snowpack, hot spring lead to drought declaration for nearly half of Washington state

  • Author: Evan Bush, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: May 26
  • Published May 21

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared drought Monday for nearly half of Washington watersheds, as the mountain snowpack that churns through hydropower dams, irrigates our state's orchards and provides for fish continues to dwindle well below normal.

Twenty days into May, "our statewide snowpack is the fourth-lowest it's been over the past 30 years," said Jeff Marti, the drought coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology.

Winter left many areas of the state with lower-than-normal snowpack. A hot, dry spring quickly zapped much of the snow that did accumulate.

The water-shortage forecast is serious, Marti said, but not as dire as what played out in 2015, a year of historically low snowpack. That year, harmful algal blooms closed fisheries, salmon died en masse in too-warm streams and agricultural losses exceeded $633 million, according to a federal report billing 2015 as a possible glimpse of our climate future.

Still, this year every water basin in the state is below the 30-year median for snowpack, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Many in Central and Western Washington sit below 50%.

The Upper Yakima basin -- where valuable crops like asparagus, hops and tree fruits grow -- currently sits at just 23% of its typical median.

The governor declared drought for the Methow, Okanogan and Upper Yakima basins in April. He added 24 more watersheds this month. The state has 62 in total.

A lack of water will have myriad effects in our state.

Despite the state's wet reputation, "we technically have a Mediterranean climate in Washington state, with wet winters and dry summers," said Nick Bond, the state's climatologist.

"We're kind of adapted -- both from a society point of view and ecosystem point of view, fish and all that -- to the existence of snow in the mountains and melt in the late spring and early summer to get us through that dry period of the year," he added.

About 68 percent of Washington's power is generated by streamflow through Washington dams. Salmon and other fish, like endangered bull trout, depend on ample, cool water to survive and spawn. Less moisture in forests, if the right conditions manifest, could mean an earlier start to the fire season and potential for large, smoky fires, Bond said.

Marti said he worried, in particular, about communities in Southwest Washington and on the Olympic Peninsula that depend on shallow wells or surface water.

"There are impressive deficits," he said. "It's been drier, much drier than last year."

Marti said he'll watch closely communities like Ryderwood, a Cowlitz County town of about 400 northwest of Longview.

"They came within a hair's width of having to truck in water last summer. They're dependent on a very small creek that essentially went dry," he said.

Large municipal water systems are expected to be fine.

The water systems of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma "report that they have sufficient water supply for people and fish this summer. Their water managers are watching the weather forecasts and encourage customers to continue to use water wisely," according to a news release from the governor's office.

Bond said climate models predict a drier-than-normal summer, with warmer temperatures that persist into nighttime.

"It's possible, even if the deck is stacked one way, you could get a really weird deal of the cards, but it's unlikely it will be on the cool side," Bond said.

He said there are not clear indications about how much precipitation the state will receive.

Declaration of drought gives the state Department of Ecology some additional ability to address the effects of the expected water shortage on farmers and communities in need.

The right to use water, which is considered a public resource under state law, is governed by an arcane legal system based on seniority. During drought years in many watersheds, the Ecology Department will have to restrict water use, starting with junior water-rights holders.

A drought declaration allows Ecology to "accept applications for emergency water-right transfers," Marti said, which will allow senior water-rights holders to temporarily give or sell their water to junior holders.

The Legislature committed about $2 million to drought relief last session, Marti said. The drought declaration allows affected public entities, like municipalities, tribes and water districts, to apply for emergency funding to stave off crop failures or aid municipal water systems.

“We’ll be starting to accept applications starting after June,” Marti said.

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