Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Drought in the rainforest

Known for rain, city of Forks struggles with water supply

You know something is wrong when one of the wettest places in the entire country is worried about water. That’s what’s happening in the city of Forks on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. Forks, famous for the Twilight Series and rain, is experiencing a drought. 

One of the wettest places in the country

Nestled in the temperate rainforest, Forks is technically the third wettest place in the lower 48 with 119 inches of annual rainfall. By comparison, Seattle is 140 miles east and gets about 37.5 inches year—that’s less than Dallas, Texas.  And the wettest spot in the continental United States isn’t too far from Forks either. Just to the south in Grays Harbor County, the Aberdeen Reservoir gets a whopping 131 inches a year. Still, Fork’s massive amount of rainfall is certainly enough to justify its soggy reputation.

The Calahwa River in Forks has hit record low daily flows this spring

A warm and dry spring

So why is a place that gets so much rain concerned about water? Forks, along with the rest of the state’s Pacific Ocean coast, experienced the second driest spring on record since measuring started in 1895. In addition, we had the eighth warmest May on record which melted the mountain snowpack much faster and earlier than normal. The combination of the lack of spring rain and early snow melt has created a water double whammy for the Olympic Peninsula.

State and federal drought determinations

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for the area and the US Drought Monitor recently determined that most of the Olympic Peninsula was facing “severe” drought. Those determinations reflect what we’re seeing on the ground. Peninsula rivers and streams such as the Satsop, Hoh, Calahwa, Hoko, and Elwha have recently hit all-time record low daily flows.

Forks is feeling the heat

In Forks, where the city relies on wells to provide drinking water, officials are growing increasingly concerned about having enough water heading into the summer months.  Water levels in the city’s wells are dropping by about a foot a week and Forks has already asked residents to voluntarily begin to conserve water. Officials expect a decision about mandatory water conservation in coming weeks.

The Salmon River south of Forks has a fish hatchery and dangerously low flows

Ecology is working to find solutions

We recently held an informational meeting in Forks where Mike Gallagher, Ecology’s water resources manager for southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula,  gave a presentation about current and projected water supply conditions. Some attendees represented small water systems in the area and told us they are also experiencing dwindling water supplies. These small water suppliers are now discussing contingency plans that involve mandatory conservation, water rationing, and the need to truck water to their customers.

Forks officials are submitting applications in hopes of taking advantage of grant funding recently made available by Ecology to address hardships caused by the drought. In 2019, state lawmakers appropriated $2 million to Ecology for drought response. Grant funding is used for projects such as drilling emergency standby wells, or helping hatcheries maintain cool and clean water for fish. 

By Jeff Zenk, Southwest Region communications

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