Friday, April 3, 2015

Snowpack and drought conditions worsen in Washington

By Dan Partridge, communications manager, Water Resources Program

More than a foot of snow in the Cascades this week was a sight for sore eyes. Sadly though, it won’t do much to help our record-low snowpack or stave off the impending drought.
Snow on the mountain passes didn't change our drought
 picture in Washington

Snowpack and drought conditions have only worsened since the Governor declared a drought for three regions of the state March 13. And as the snowpack continues to dwindle, more regions of the state are likely to be declared in a drought.

Snowpack drops to 20% of normal

Over the past three weeks, snowpack has dropped to about 20 percent of normal statewide. In a normal year, late March and early April are typically when we reach the peak of our snowpack, not scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

We are so far behind that we need a whopping 5,000 percent of average snowfall in April to recover from our record shortfall!

View larger image

Snowpack critical to water supplies

Snowpack is critical to our water supplies in many river basins of the state, providing a frozen reservoir during the winter that feeds our rivers and streams in the spring and summer as it melts.

3% of normal in the Olympics

Snowpack in the Olympic mountains is teetering around just 3 percent of normal. For perspective, at Hurricane Ridge there are 12 inches of snow right now, when typically we would have 109 inches.

6% to 24% of normal in the Cascades

Snowpack ranges anywhere from 5 percent to 42 percent of normal in the Cascade mountains. For perspective, at Paradise there are 49 inches of snow right now, when typically we would have 176 inches.

59% of normal in Walla Walla

Snowpack is 57 percent of normal in the Walla Walla Basin.

Current drought regions

  • The Olympic Peninsula, primarily in Jefferson and Clallam counties.
  • The East side of the Central Cascades including Yakima and Wenatchee.
  • The Walla Walla Basin.

Regions potentially at risk for drought

We’re working closely with communities, irrigation districts, local governments and legislative districts across the state to gather water supply information to assess where additional drought declarations may occur. Areas of concern include:
  • The Squilchuck Basin in Eastern Washington
  • Klickitat County, including the towns of White Salmon and Glenwood
  • The Okanogan Tonasket Irrigation District
  • In Mason and Jefferson counties, the Skokomish, Hamma Hamma, Dosewallips and Duckabush basins
Next week our Water Supply Availability Committee, comprised of our partner agencies in drought response, will look at water supply concerns in parts of Washington not currently under a drought declaration. The committee will review snowpack conditions in these areas and others and discuss long-term weather forecasts, summer stream-flow projections, and water supply needs. Then we’ll consider convening another water committee, the Emergency Water Executive Committee, that makes recommendations to the governor on drought declarations.

Why drought declarations are important

Drought declarations are important in that they qualify water users for emergency assistance. This opens the door to money and technical assistance from Ecology for leasing water rights, drilling new wells, deepening existing ones, laying pipes and installing pumps to move water from one location to another.

Asked for $9 million from the Legislature

We have asked the Legislature for $9 million in emergency funding. While we’re waiting for that to be approved, we have started spending existing funds to lease water rights to boost stream flows in the tributaries of the Yakima River.

Searching for water in the Yakima Basin

Much of our drought response so far has been in the Yakima Basin. It’s our richest agricultural region in the state. We’re hosting workshops next week in Yakima and Cle Elum to explain how farmers can get paid for forgoing their senior water diversions and not planting a crop during the 2015 irrigation season. Those include hay farmers and other annual growers.

On Monday, the Bureau of Reclamation will announce its second Water Supply Forecast of the irrigation season. In March, the bureau said holders of senior water rights in the Yakima Basin would get their full allocations of irrigation water but “junior” water right holders would receive only 73 percent of their supplies. Based on what we are hearing, we expect a further drop in junior water supplies.

Ecology has been anticipating the drop. Later in the irrigation season, we are proposing spending as much as $4 million of drought funding to help pay for temporary water right transfers from senior to junior water right holders boosting the water allocations for those junior irrigators.

We’re doing everything we can to stay on top of the declining snowpack and impending drought conditions. While public water districts so far are not anticipating problems with municipal water supplies in 2015. it’s going to be a thirsty year for crops and fish. We’re reaching out to farmers and fish hatcheries and our partner agencies in drought response to identify and help relieve hardships early on in our snowpack drought.

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