Thursday, August 6, 2009

It's been hot and dry but it hasn't been a drought

Every evening as I turn up the hill on the road to my home in Auburn, I’m restricted to one lane by orange construction cones because the closed-off lane is occupied by a big blinking electronic sign. It asks only one thing of me and other Auburn residents: “Please conserve water.”

This is the first time in 14 years I’ve lived in the Lakeland Hills area of Auburn, that the city has requested voluntarily restrictions on water use. It’s not a problem for me. The brown lawn along my driveway shows the city that we’re not big consumers of water in my household, even during the horrendous heat wave of late July.

Gov. Chris Gregoire is assuring us that despite the hot temperatures and drier than normal conditions, that almost all water supplies are in good shape around the state. The city of Auburn has been concerned because city wells were in full production to keep pace with rising water demand and those wells were approaching capacity.

As temperatures start to cool down a bit, however, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Auburn return that sign to storage.

The governor is getting ongoing advice from a couple of committees on if or when she may need to declare a drought emergency. Without a doubt it’s dry: more than 30 counties in the state have a high or very high fire danger.

But there is no water emergency in the state yet, although the Department of Ecology is watching two areas closely where regional drought declarations may be in order: the North Central Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula. Both areas saw snowpack at 65-70% of normal and projections of summer runoff are down at that level as well.

Two criteria must exist for the governor to consider a drought declaration: 1) Water supply (be it snowpack or precipitation or both) must be below 75% of normal and 2) water users must be experiencing “undue hardship.” The law doesn’t define undue hardship but you know what it is if your well has gone dry.

Legislative action taken to whittle down a $4.9 billion state budget deficit has meant Ecology has lost the authority to allocate drought relief funds. Money from those accounts has been used in previous years (in the drought of 2005, for example) to help homeowners drill their dry wells deeper or add to a city’s water storage capacity.

A drought declaration, however, may help bring federal financial relief to those regions that need it. In the meantime, Ecology is keeping the governor apprised of any trouble in Washington water supplies. We’ll be monitoring water supplies through the winter because the National Weather Service predicts that El Nino conditions will continue to develop and last through the winter of 2009-2010.

To find out more about what is expected from El Nino this winter, check out this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site:

Climatologists note in the past (such as in 2005) that there has been a correlation between El Nino and warmer and drier conditions. So this may mean below normal snowpack and stream flows next spring and the drought conditions that may accompany them could make this summer seem like a walk in a (water) park.

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