A widespread lack of snowfall this season has left Washington state in a deepening drought, and the prospects are grim: threats to crops and fish and increasing worries about wildfires.
OLYMPIA — More wildfire hazards, more than $1 billion in lost crops, and threats to spawning fish: Government officials Friday outlined the implications of a worsening drought afflicting Washington state.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency Friday, clearing the way for state officials to ramp up aid to deal with hardships from water shortages. Parts of the state have been severely impacted by snowpack levels that have reached just 16 percent of normal, according to Inslee.
“This drought has deepened dramatically over the past few weeks,” Inslee said during a news conference with state agency officials. He noted the snowpack was at an unprecedented low.
“On the Olympic Peninsula where there would normally be 80 inches of snow today in the mountains,” he added later, “the glacier lilies are blooming.”
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State agriculture officials estimate a loss of $1.2 billion in crops this year because of dry conditions. And state wildfire managers expect blazes earlier than normal in the season and at higher elevations.
“The rain the past few days is bringing some temporary relief; however, with no snow in the mountains to sustain us through the dry summer months, we have some really tough months ahead of us,” said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology.
Personal water use, as for households, isn’t a big focus at the moment. Some water managers in the Puget Sound region, including Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, aren’t anticipating water shortages.
“The large public utilities have planned well,” Bellon said. “Our projections show that most households in Washington will have an adequate water supply. Our focus in this snowpack drought is on farms, fish and smaller community water systems.”
“People are going to need to check with their local water suppliers to learn more about how the drought may affect their areas,” Inslee said.
State officials already have taken drought-relief measures in many areas to help protect municipal water supplies along with water needed for crop irrigation and fish populations.
Some districts have had to shut off water to farmers based on seniority of water rights. Major irrigators can volunteer to divert their water rights, with a cost-sharing option from the state — something Bellon said is already being done in the Dungeness region on the Olympic Peninsula.
Irrigation districts in the Yakima basin — one of the state’s main agricultural regions — are turning off water for weeks to extend supplies, Inslee said.
But at the moment, the state hasn’t had “to turn anyone away” from water transfers, emergency-well drought allowances or other measures, according to Bellon.
Water managers in the basin have tapped reservoirs two months earlier than usual.
The state is seeing record low water levels in rivers, and water is being diverted from some creeks to others to aid steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. In addition to water diversion, in some cases fish are being moved to cooler waters upstream to help them get where they are spawning.
Creeks and streams connected to main rivers often dry up first, according to Joe Stohr, deputy director at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We will either re-channelize on a temporary basis, or we will truck and trap those fish and move them above” any obstructions brought on by low water, Stohr said.
Before Friday’s statewide declaration, the governor first declared drought emergencies in March for three regions of the state and later expanded the areas to include nearly half of Washington.
Even before the drought worsened, forecasters were projecting a tough wildfire season, which would come after last year’s Carlton Complex wildfire, the worst in the state’s recorded history.
Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said Friday that the lack of snowpack in the Olympic Mountains and the western slope of the Cascades could bring in a worse-than-usual fire season to the state’s normally wetter western half.
“There’s a lot of heavy fuel out there,” said Goldmark, referring to the Olympic Mountains. “The stream flows are going to be low, and barring a miracle, that landscape’s going to be bone dry.”