Thursday, May 22, 2014

Plenty of snowpack, healthy stream flows: Why are we still worried about drought?

By Dan Partridge, communications, manager, Water Resources Program

Snowpack is 100 percent of normal in Washington state and spring runoff is providing our rivers and streams with healthy stream flows this spring. So why worry about drought?

 Blame it on a "child."

The National Weather Service predicts there is a 65 percent probability this year of an El Nino developing off Washington’s coast. Above average sea surface temperatures are occurring now off the west coast of South America and these conditions are expected to spread north, bringing warmer, drier weather this fall to the Pacific Northwest. Wetter weather could follow in the spring of 2015 but in rain, not snowfall that creates a reservoir of water supply in the form of snowpack.

The state Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC) learned of these conditions at its meeting May 16th chaired by the Department of Ecology, the lead agency for drought response in Washington state.

WSAC is comprised of state and federal agencies that monitor snowpack and water supply conditions and advises Gov. Inslee on the need for a drought declaration when dry conditions persist anywhere in Washington.

Some members of WSAC may have assumed the May 16th meeting would be their last – until they learned about the approaching El Nino and another disturbing prediction. Computer models show El Nino will most likely be preceded by a warmer-than- usual summer which will increase water demand for crops. With these looming threats to water supplies, WSAC has agreed to meet again in August.

The USDA has already made a drought declaration in Washington state designating two counties – Benton and Franklin – as “primary natural disaster areas” due to drought.

This designation is based on soil moisture and precipitation measurements over eight weeks and doesn’t mean much unless you’re a dryland farmer. If you don’t have access to irrigation and depend on rainfall to water your crops, then you may be in trouble and eligible for low interest loans from the USDA's Farm Service Agency .

Ecology determines drought differently from the USDA. In fact, Washington state has a statutory definition of drought and two conditions must be met before Ecology recommends that the governor declare a drought emergency:

   — An area is experiencing or projected to experience a water supply below 75 percent of normal, and

   — Water users within those areas will likely incur undue hardships as a result of the shortage.

Ecology and WSAC will continue to monitor water supplies in Washington state this summer and fall and if necessary Ecology will seek drought relief funds from the Legislature to provide loans and grants for drilling emergency wells or leasing water rights for stream flows.

 The latest numbers from the U.S. National Drought Monitor show half of the U.S. experiencing a drought. Washington has so far avoided this fate but Jeff Marti, Ecology’s drought response coordinator, says the Pacific Northwest may be facing a “doozy” of an El Nino. If that’s the case, the work that Ecology and WSAC do this summer and fall will guide the drought relief preparations needed to help our people, farms and economy weather the storm.

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