Monday, March 21, 2016

2015: A drought for all seasons…

Lack of snow, record temps, low flows, no rain made for a statewide water shortage

By Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager, Central Regional Office

While 2016 is shaping up to be a more normal “water year,” Ecology’s water managers are taking stock of last year’s drought in a report just posted, and gleaning some important lessons learned.

We’re also looking to the future, considering impacts drought and climate have on surface and groundwater resources and learning some surprising things.
What a difference a year makes!
If you recall last spring, on March 13, Gov. Jay Inslee declared that drought conditions were likely to cause hardships on the Olympic Peninsula, along the eastern Cascade slopes of Central Washington and in the Walla Walla watershed.
By May, conditions deteriorated so much a statewide drought was declared. Winter temperatures were 4.7 degrees warmer than normal! There were no late spring snowstorms in the Olympic, Cascade and Blue mountain ranges. There was little snow melt to feed rivers and streams throughout the year.
The state was suffering a “snowpack drought.”
During the long hot summer, rainfalls tapered off to nothing and streamflows dropped to unheard of lows across the state, intensifying what would become a very unusual drought year. Even in October temperatures were above normal in 2015.
Emergency drought response in 2015 included calls for conservation in major cities like Everett, Seattle and Tacoma and real shortages of water for cities like Forks, usually one of the wettest places in the United States.
Farmers fallowed crops, leasing their water to other farmers or to the state so streamflows remained viable for endangered salmon. Others tightened up their systems, switching from sprinklers to drip, or turning to pumping water from wells authorized only under declared drought conditions.
Much has changed in the decade since the last declared drought of 2005. Many in Eastern Washington have honed their ability to respond during drought, while for others it was the first time they’d faced hardships and water curtailments.
More than 800 irrigators were ordered to shut off their water, many before the end of July and some with among the oldest water rights in the state – dating back to the 1870s in tributaries like the Teanaway River in the Yakima Basin. Crop losses were suffered, and fish die-offs occurred due to low water and high temperatures.
Some $6.7 million in drought funds were disbursed to every corner of the state. Funds helped shore up drinking water supplies in the city of Moxee, Clallam, Skagit, Stevens and Spokane counties. They supported fish passage and health, and bought water to boost streamflows. Drought response promoted residential conservation, and supported agricultural efficiencies and drought well emergency pumping and mitigation.

Farmers who got permission to use water from emergency drought wells were required to pay 50 percent of the costs to offset impacts expected from additional groundwater pumping. The number of requests to use emergency drought wells dropped significantly from previous droughts.

As part of our review of the 2015 drought, we're evaluating the impacts of the drought on surface water and groundwater supplies, and what that means in the long run.

While an initial story map report shows that the 2015 snow drought had little obvious, widespread impact on aquifers,  that doesn’t mean the state’s aquifers are in good shape. To quote the report,

“…there is reason to be concerned about the sustainability of groundwater levels/storage on the east side of the mountains. Particularly in the greater Yakima and Columbia Basins, where substantial on-going declines in groundwater levels/storage have occurred in recent decades. Consequently, the spring 2015 water levels for a significant number of wells in these basins were already either below normal or at the lowest levels ever measured – even before the full brunt of the drought was felt.”

Declining groundwater trends from 1968 to 2009 are documented throughout the Columbia River Basin in the US Geological Survey report Groundwater Status and Trends for the Columbia Plateau Regional Aquifer System, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

This spring, we plan to collect additional groundwater level data to assess how wells recovered over the winter months. This will add to our knowledge, and help determine whether we’re using this important resource responsibly, or if we’re over-pumping groundwater aquifers.

For now, the problem may be more a result of water use than a changing climate. Even in non-drought years, water levels decline in many wells due to seasonal pumping.

Climate change may lead to more winters with dismal snowpack and warmer summers. Even if we don’t see an immediate impact on groundwater, we know that water levels may drop even more rapidly if we aren’t careful and use groundwater in a sustainable way.
Based on the sharp and steady declines of the state’s aquifers, we’re looking to develop strategies to respond to projected groundwater shortfalls. All to protect a resource that’s crucial to hundreds of communities and Washington’s economic vitality now and in the future.

So stay tuned.
Long-term groundwater trends are showing the state aquifers are in steady decline, especially in Eastern Washington

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