WA declares statewide drought emergency following poor snowpack

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Climate Lab is a Seattle Times initiative that explores the effects of climate change in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The project is funded in part by The Bullitt Foundation, Jim and Birte Falconer, Mike and Becky Hughes, University of Washington and Walker Family Foundation, and its fiscal sponsor is the Seattle Foundation.

People across the state held on to hope throughout the winter, keeping an eye to the forecasts and crossing their fingers for more snow.

Relief never really came.

Now, just two weeks since Washington’s snowpack typically peaks, the state Department of Ecology officials declared a statewide drought emergency, bracing for a dry summer.

And conditions are expected to worsen in the weeks ahead, spelling trouble for fish and farms, drinking water and hydropower, said Caroline Mellor, Ecology’s drought lead.

State officials expected a warm, dry winter thanks to an El Niño pattern pushing warm, tropical air into the region but the global warming trend exacerbated those conditions, drying the Pacific Northwest even further.

As climate change worsens, these sorts of droughts are becoming more common, Mellor said. State officials have declared drought emergencies 10 times over the past 35 years and six of them have been within the last decade. 

Snowpack across the state sits at about 63% of its normal level, Mellor said. But in some areas, like the Lower Yakima Basin, it’s as low as 46% of normal.

Precipitation as a whole hasn’t been as lackluster, though, Mellor said. To date, the state has seen about 87% of normal precipitation.

The problem boils down to increasing temperatures, she said. “More precipitation is coming off as rain or (melting) too early, then it goes into the ocean and isn’t available for when it’s needed,” Mellor said.

Last year, Washington saw about a normal amount of snowpack but a heat wave in May melted half of it in just three weeks, Mellor said. This year, with much less snow on the mountains, abnormally warm weather is expected to cause a similar meltoff.

The official drought declaration — which excludes cities along the Tacoma, Seattle and Everett corridor — means state officials expect to see less than 75% of the state’s normal water supply and that shortage poses “risk of undue hardship,” Mellor said. 

That second factor is the cities in central Puget Sound are excluded in the declaration, Mellor said. Those cities have large enough water reserves in place to weather the drought without too much harm.

Seattle Public Utilities, which provides drinking water to about 1.5 million customers, is capturing water in its two major reservoirs as snow melts and should be able to fill them, said Julie Crittenden, the utility’s water planning and program manager.

The utility asked customers to voluntarily conserve water last year due to low water supply, but at the moment, Crittenden said a similar request doesn’t appear imminent.

Out on the Olympic Peninsula, however, communities faced a mix of voluntary and mandatory water restrictions. Mike Healy, director of public works and utilities at Port Angeles, said similar restrictions look to be on the horizon. 

“Short of some more snowfall, which doesn’t appear likely,” Healy said.

Less water also means utilities can’t generate as much hydropower as usual. Seattle City Light raised rates in January to recoup millions it lost because of poor hydropower production last winter. Water was in such short supply that the utility wasn’t able to fill its reservoir on the Skagit River, power management director Siobhan Doherty said.

Snowpack is worse this year than last, Doherty said, but because of the warmer-than-normal temperatures electricity demand has been lower, offering something of a silver lining to the problem.

The drought declaration will also unlock $4.5 million in grants to help local governments, tribes, irrigation and utilities districts access emergency drought permits, request temporary water rights transfers and relief funding. 

One agency likely to tap into the emergency cash is the Roza Irrigation District, which serves the Yakima River valley, district manager Scott Revell said. Current forecasts for the district indicate it can expect about 63% of its normal water supply but Revell said that figure could drop as low as 51%.

This means the district will have to lease water from other sources, which at times could cost up to $240,000 a day, Revell said. “That’s $10,000 an hour.”

The district could burn through its emergency reserves in a matter of days and would need matching funds from the state to keep the water flowing, Revell said.

Crops that require water later in the year are likely to suffer the most if supply comes up short, he said. This is particularly true for blueberries, apples and hops and could mean poor yields and even a “hangover” effect, damaging crop quality into next year.

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