OLYMPIA – Early snowmelt, a lack of spring rain and low streamflows have prompted the Washington Department of Ecology to declare a drought emergency for watersheds in 12 counties throughout the state.
Counties affected by the drought declaration include Benton, Clallam, Columbia, Jefferson, Kittitas, Klickitat, Okanogan, Skagit, Snohomish, Walla Walla, Whatcom and Yakima. The rest of the state remains under the drought advisory issued by Ecology July 5.
“This drought is already harming Washington communities, businesses and farms, and it’s another sign of the damage that climate change is causing to our state,” said Laura Watson, Ecology’s director. “Today’s drought declaration will help to rapidly deliver relief to these areas, but we need to also be taking steps to manage water wisely and prepare for a drier future.”
In Washington, drought is declared when there is less than 75% of normal water supply and there is the risk of undue hardship. Declaring a drought emergency allows Ecology to process emergency water right permits and transfers. New legislation passed this spring also makes $3 million in emergency drought funds available as grants to support communities, irrigation districts, Tribes and other public entities facing hardships.
It’s hot and dry out there
May and June of this year ranked as the fourth warmest and 11th driest such period since 1895. In June, Washington received only 49% of its usual rainfall. Those hot days led to early runoff of the snowpack that feeds many Washington rivers, and the dry weather deprived the soil of a final shot of moisture before the summer heat arrived.
Current forecasts show a high likelihood of continued warm, dry weather through October.
“Climate change is making warm, dry summers more frequent, and droughts more severe,” said Ria Berns, manager of Ecology’s Water Resources program. “What we’re seeing this year is likely a sign of things to come.”
Watersheds that fell under this year’s drought declaration are reporting a range of hardships, including limits on water users with more junior water rights, difficulties with fish passage, and a need to truck in drinking water to residents.
Some of those impacts for the affected counties:
West of the Cascades: Nooksack, Upper and Lower Skagit, Lyre-Hoko, Soleduc-Hoh, Dungeness-Elwha
In the Nooksack Basin, three water systems serving 346 people north and west of Ferndale are operating on emergency status. Some wells have gone dry. One system has an emergency intertie with Ferndale, another is hauling water via truck. The third will likely need to bring in water by truck soon.
In the Upper and Lower Skagit basins, curtailments due to instream flow requirements have resulted in some junior water right holders petitioning for a drought declaration in order to facilitate emergency water right transfers.
In the Lyre-Hoko, Soleduc-Hoh and Dungeness-Elhwa watersheds, concerns about fish hatcheries and salmon migration have been reported due to low streamflows.
Clallam County PUD’s Island View Water System is trucking in water because Olsen Creek’s streamflow is too low. This system serves a population of 78 residential customers and 13 non-residential customers.
Neah Bay has been on mandatory watering restrictions since mid-May.
East of the Cascades: Upper Yakima, Lower Yakima, Naches, Walla Walla, Okanogan, Methow
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has pro-rated junior irrigation districts, including Roza, Kittitas Reclamation District and the Wapato Irrigation Project to 72% of their full entitlement. Some mid-season fallowing has already occurred, meaning some farmers are not planting in fields when they normally would. Some cherry trees are not being watered post-harvest. Irrigators have expressed concerns about crop stress and reduced crop yields. There is also significant concern for late-season water availability.
In the Walla Walla Basin, there are reports that parts of the watershed have gone completely dry. The Washington State Conservation Commission has reported crop losses.
Are you facing drought hardship?
Observations and photographs of drought conditions can help the Department of Ecology assess whether to elevate state response. Observations should be submitted using the Conditions Monitoring Observation System