Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snow reduces risk of drought but work continues for drought committee

By Dan Partridge, Communications Manager, Water Resources Program

Photo source: Washington State Dept. of Transportation, traffic cameraThe heavy snowfall that is bad news for travelers on Snoqualmie Pass is good news for cities, farmers and fish who rely on run-off from mountain snowpack to feed the rivers and streams which provide their water supplies.

Conditions have improved substantially according to snowpack maps produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Today (Feb. 18) the NRCS map shows snowpack at 69 to 101 percent of average across the state.The range on Feb. 6 was 35 to 86 percent. Feb. 6 was the day Ecology convened the state’s Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC), a group of state and federal agencies that monitor water supply conditions in Washington and decide if a drought declaration should be recommended to the governor. Under state law, if the governor directs the director of Ecology to declare a drought, the state can provide loans and grants to water users like irrigators, well owners and operators of small water systems who are experiencing hardships because of reduced water supplies.

Projections of melting snowpack encouraging

There is also good news in projections of run-off from melting snowpack provided by the Northwest River Forecast Center. Projections for only a handful of rivers in the state show run-off of less than 70 percent of average for the months of April through September.

According to state law, a watershed is eligible for a drought declaration and a release of state funds provided that the area has been experiencing or is projected to experience a water supply that is below 75 percent of normal and the water users in that area are likely to incur “undue hardships” as a result of a water shortage.

Under that criteria, the Olympic Peninsula has been most at risk for a drought but the picture on the peninsula has brightened considerably in the last 12 days. Snowpack is now at 69 percent of average compared to 35 percent on Feb. 6.
Irrigation districts in the Dungeness Basin on peninsula are also less likely than other water users to incur hardships in a drought because they hold many of the senior water rights in the basin. That means their water use will be the last to be curtailed in a drought.

Too early for drought committee to ‘stand down’

Despite the encouraging numbers it is too early for the WSAC to “stand down.” The committee is scheduled to meet again March 7. On Feb. 6 WSAC heard Washington has a high bar to clear to get back to normal water supply: 200 percent of average snowfall over the next two months. Accordingly, Ecology has made formal request to the Legislature for drought relief funds and the authority to spend the money if necessary.

Looking at the forecasts of the National Weather Service and others, Jeff Marti, drought coordinator for Ecology, says it’s not possible to say whether we will have wetter or drier conditions through May, but he is hoping that our days will be brightened by some additional wet and gloomy weather. Ecology’s Drought information Web page provides links to maps, charts and forecasts provided by our partners in the WSAC.

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