Gov. Gregoire officially declares a statewide drought emergency. The dry conditions offer an unsettling peek into the future.

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ZILLAH, Yakima County — Ric Valicoff and his Yakima Valley neighbors live on the drought frontline, reliant on Cascade snowmelt to grow apples, cherries, grapes and other fruit.

This year, the snowpack is a bust, and the bare mountain slopes may offer an unsettling peek into the future.

Mountain surveys show it has shrunk to less than a quarter of the historic averages in the Yakima basin, setting the stage for a record-shattering water shortage in a valley that in a good year produces more than $1.3 billion worth of crops.

“We’ve never been here before — so there are so many things to try to figure out,” said Valicoff, who maintains 450 acres of orchards.

This week, the federal Bureau of Reclamation forecast that farmers such as Valicoff, who are at the low end of the irrigation pecking order, will receive only 34 percent of a full share. And, if skies stay clear, that share could fall to less than half that amount. Some growers may have to abandon producing fruit and instead water their orchards just enough to keep them alive.

Today, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a statewide drought emergency, directing her Emergency Drought Committee to gear up an emergency command center, track and coordinate responses by state agencies and make sure state resources reach where they are needed, according to the Associated Press.

She ordered the National Guard to prepare for combatting wildfires this summer and requested the Legislature to boost drought-related appropriations by an additional $8.2 million.

“While water shortages won’t affect all areas of the state in precisely the same way, it seems very likely that all areas of our state will experience at least some level of drought this year,” Gregoire said in prepared remarks.

“We need to start taking action now, and all of us need to be part of the solution.”


Drought declaration




The state, as early as today, may announce a drought emergency.


The declaration can authorize the use of emergency wells, the expansion of others, and the drilling of new wells. It authorizes other steps to try to help maintain energy supplies, aid agriculture, protect public water supplies, prepare for firefighting and protect stream flows for fish. The declaration can also allow expenditures to aid water users from a $1 million state drought fund, and could pave the way for additional appropriations from the Legislature or Congress.

Since 1977, the state has declared drought emergencies four times. Twice, in 1977 and 2001, the emergencies covered the entire state. In 1992, the declaration covered parts of the state, and in 1994 it focused on the Yakima Valley area.

Source: State Department of Ecology

Shrinking snowpack

In the decades ahead, climate studies predict small Cascade snowpack will be much more frequent due to global warming triggered by carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Richland-based, federally funded research center, forecast that by midcentury, the average Northwest snowpack may be less than half its historic average.

This would have huge impacts — from reduced Puget Sound- region water and hydroelectric supply to increased fire risks in forests and less cool water for salmon survival.

Climate scientists do not tie any one year’s weather to global warming, including this winter’s meltdown. But UW scientists say a long-term warming trend already has begun.

“To the best we are able to estimate, the average snowpack of the past 10 years has been the lowest of any 10-year period going back to 1916,” said Philip Mote, UW climate scientist.

Mote and other researchers base their conclusion on surveys and observations of winter snowpacks during the past century, a period when they say the average annual temperature in the Northwest climbed by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

This year’s winter underscores the dramatic effects that warm weather can have on the snowpack. In the Yakima basin, the mountains this winter got 53 percent of normal precipitation. But due to rising mountain temperatures, much of it fell as rain or fast-melting snow. By March 1, the snowpack measured only 22 percent of average. At some lower elevations, surveyors found only bare ground.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Tony Holcomb, a Bureau of Reclamation official.

Many farmers in Yakima remain wary of the scientific consensus that global warming can be tied to human actions. But some say that, whatever the reason, it’s time to acknowledge that the weather appears to have changed and prepare for a different future.

“I would be content if they just dropped the arguments over global warming, and just dealt with the facts,” said Sid Morrison, a Zillah grower who served 12 years as a Republican congressman from the Yakima Valley. “That the climate patterns are changing and designs and dreams to capture water of 100 years ago aren’t working, let’s come up with fixes, not just Band-Aids.”

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Farm workers in Zillah, Yakima County, plant cherry trees that will be irrigated with a new drip system — running down the middle of the trees being planted — to conserve water.

Irrigation system

The Yakima basin owes much of its prosperity to one of the earliest — and largest — water projects ever tackled by the federal government. During a 30-year period that ended in 1936, the government financed a network of canals, tunnels, dams and six mountain reservoirs in the Yakima basin.

Today, this system provides irrigation for more than 460,000 acres of desert lands that rank as some of the most productive in the Northwest. Some of the land is in field crops, such as alfalfa hay, but increasingly the acreage is put into fruits that include not only apples, pears, peaches and apricots but grapes for wine vineyards.

But in recent decades, the system has had a harder time meeting the needs of junior water-rights holders, who do not get all their water unless the water needs of growers with senior water rights have been satisfied.

Some of the strain also reflects new demands on the water, including higher minimum stream flows for fish.

The next two months will determine the severity of this year’s drought. The best scenario for farmers would be a very cool, wet spring that might rebuild at least a small portion of the lost snowpack.

But this spring, forecasters are calling for warm, dry weather with April through September runoff expected to be at record lows in 26 streams across the state. This would force the Bureau of Reclamation to tap into the reservoirs far earlier than normal, and push farmers into the drought of a lifetime.

One estimate produced by Michael Scott, an economist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, predicts that reduced irrigation flows this year could slash the value of basin crops by more than $250 million. That assumes prices would not rise to reflect shortages, and growers with high-value crops are unable to purchase large quantities of water from those who raise lower-value crops.

Some of the toughest conditions face Valicoff and some 2,000 other growers who hold junior water rights on the Roza Irrigation District. These growers work 72,000 acres that include some of the basin’s best growing sites that are largely covered in high-value orchards, crops and grapes, which use substantially less water than the tree fruit.

The periodic water shortages that plague the district already have sparked considerable conservation efforts. The district has invested millions of dollars to reduce leakage from a central irrigation canal, and millions more to turn many of the smaller canals that feed to farms into efficient pipelines.

The water savings extend to the fields, where some farmers have invested in extensive networks of flexible black tubing that dribbles water directly to thirsty roots. These systems are substantially more efficient than sprinklers that now irrigate most orchards.

But conservation alone isn’t going to get the Roza farmers through this year. Some are planning to start up wells that tap water from a limited underground aquifer.

They also are planning to buy water from senior water-rights users who might be willing to fallow low-value crop land. The Roza district has set aside $3 million for such purchases and is also requesting additional money from the state.

Jerry Gilliland, a spokesman for Gregoire, said the state has about $1 million for loans and grants to fund water purchases by farmers. That’s not expected to be near enough, though. Any additional money would have to be appropriated by the Legislature, Gilliland said.

“There will probably be a lot of orchards that still don’t have enough water to produce a crop,” said Valicoff, board chairman of the Roza district. “We got to find some way to limp through it.”

Summer hardships are likely to add new momentum to increase water storage both in the Yakima basin and elsewhere in the state. The most ambitious proposal, which Morrison, the former congressman, champions, would pipe water from the Columbia River into the basin to form a new reservoir backed by a 595-foot dam. The price tag for the proposed Black Rock Reservoir would be at least $3.8 billion, according to Bureau of Reclamation estimates.

Environmentalists have fought many big dam projects and are wary of Black Rock. They note that farm-conservation efforts could still be expanded in the Yakima Valley, and smaller storage projects might be a good alternative.

“We need to have a balance of solution,” said Josh Baldi of the Washington Environmental Council. “Hopefully this drought can open up a dialogue that can be more constructive than the water wars of the past.”

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Times staff reporter Craig Welch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.