Thursday, June 4, 2015

Rapidly declining stream and river flows are telling the story of our drought

by Dan Partridge, communications manager, Water Resources Program

Just as the map of Washington was turning red with lack of snowpack in March and April, the month of May brought much of the state “into the red” for rapidly declining stream flows.

Our snowpack is virtually gone and more than 80 percent of the rivers measured by the U.S. Geological Survey are flowing at below-normal levels – and in many cases, at record lows.

For example:
  • The Dungeness River on the Olympic Peninsula is only ankle deep at its mouth.    
  • A receding Siebert Creek, in the Dungeness Basin, stopped short of the saltwater until this week – when the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe dug a new channel allowing Coho salmon smolts to reach the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
  • The White River at Buckley is flowing at only 32 percent of normal for this time of year.    
  • Flows in the Wenatchee River at Monitor are only 46 percent of normal for May-June. 
  • Flows in the Snoqualmie River are at record lows, down more than 60 percent of normal and at levels not usually seen until August.
No snowmelt, weather forecast point to continuing decline in stream flows   

It’s only the first of June and with little to no snowmelt occurring through the summer, coupled with forecasts of hotter and drier than normal weather into the fall, stream flows will continue to decline.

Farmers and fish are already experiencing hardships because of the low flows.  Irrigators with junior water rights in the Yakima Basin will receive only 44 percent of their normal water allocations. This week the Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Basin re-started its water delivery system after a three-week shutdown to conserve irrigation water for the season.

Big fish passage issues looming in the state    

What happened with Siebert Creek provides a dramatic example of how fish passage can be impaired by low flows. But the state Department of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) may be dealing with much bigger fish passage issues around the state as summer turns to fall and spawning fish attempt to survive low flows during their migration upstream.

A big concern for the summer and fall is the projected return to the Dungeness River of as many as 1.2 million pink salmon.

“It (the Dungeness) may be too warm and too shallow. It could be a problem,” Brent Bower with the National Weather Service told the Peninsula Daily News.

Taking action now to reduce hardships from low stream flows     

Ecology is working with DFW, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Agriculture to anticipate problems coming from low flows and possibly to take action now to reduce hardships from water shortages. For example, during the last statewide drought in 2005, biologists installed structures in the river channels of the Dungeness that helped fish swim upstream.

While stream flows are low and getting worse, confidence is high among state agencies that we can provide effective drought relief that will reduce the impacts of water shortages on our economy and environment.

Action on our request for $9.5 million in drought relief funding is expected soon in the Legislature’s special session. This will provide grants for a variety of activities to reduce the impacts of low flows on communities, farmers and fish.      

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