State ramps up work to relieve hardships from water shortages
OLYMPIA – With snowpack at historic lows, rivers dwindling and irrigation districts cutting off water to farmers, Gov. Jay Inslee today declared a statewide drought for Washington.
“We’re really starting to feel the pain from this snowpack drought,” Inslee said. “Impacts are already severe in several areas of the state. Difficult decisions are being made about what crops get priority water and how best to save fish.”
The Washington Department of Agriculture is projecting a $1.2 billion crop loss this year as a result of the drought.
To protect crops in the state’s most productive agricultural region — the Yakima Basin — irrigation districts are turning off water for weeks at a time to try to extend water supplies longer into the summer.
In the Walla Walla region, water is being shifted from creek to creek to keep water flowing for steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. Fish are even being hauled farther upstream to cooler water.
On the Olympic Peninsula, where there would normally be 80 inches of snow now, flowers such as glacier lilies are blooming.
As things continue to dry out, the Department of Natural Resources expects more early-season and higher-elevation wildfires.
In the Puget Sound region, the large municipal water suppliers such as Seattle, Tacoma and Everett have adequate reservoir storage to meet their customers’ needs and do not anticipate water shortages. Homeowners and businesses with questions about water use should contact their local utility district.
“This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced,” said Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “Rain amounts have been normal but snow has been scarce. And we’re watching what little snow we have quickly disappear.”
Snowpack in the mountains has dropped to just 16 percent of normal levels statewide. Snowmelt through the spring and summer is what usually keeps rivers flowing, crops watered and fish alive. However, the snow has already melted in the central Puget Sound basin and upper Yakima basin, and on the Olympic Peninsula.
On May 1, the Natural Resources Conservation Service found 11 snow sites in Washington that are snow free for the first time ever. Of the 98 snow sites the Conservation Service measured in Washington, 66 of them are currently snow free.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in April that 78 percent of streams statewide were running below or much below normal. Some were already at historic lows.
The Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water for the Yakima Basin, has tapped into reservoir storage two months earlier than normal.
“We have some tough, challenging months ahead of us. We’re ready to bring support and relief to the hardest hit areas of the state. We’re going to do everything we can to get through this,” Inslee said.
Farmers and communities facing hardships may qualify for drought relief funds. Money can be used to drill water wells, lease water rights and acquire pumps and pipes to move water from one location to another.
The Department of Ecology has been leasing water rights to boost stream flows, partnering with other agencies to evaluate fish passage problems and monitoring well water supplies.
A request for $9.5 million in drought relief funds has been submitted to the Legislature. Until funding is approved, Ecology is using existing funds for drought relief work.
“We’ve been busy the past few months working with sister agencies, tribes and communities to prepare and respond to this,” Bellon said. “We’re working hard to help farmers, communities and fish survive this drought.”