Drought emergency declared

Areas encircled in red have been declared drought emergency areas by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Washington Department of Ecology
Areas encircled in red have been declared drought emergency areas by Gov. Jay Inslee.

— Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a drought emergency for three regions of Washington.

Citing near-record low snowpack, Inslee declared the emergency for the Olympic Peninsula, east side of the central Cascades including Yakima and Wenatchee, and the Walla Walla region.

Those regions are expected to be hardest hit with drought conditions this year, he said.

Snowpack is 7 percent of normal in the Olympic Mountains. It ranges from 8-45 percent of normal across the Cascades, and is 67 percent of normal in the Walla Walla region.

“Nearly a third of our SNOTEL (monitoring) sites in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada are reporting the lowest snowpack ever measures,” Natural Resources Conservation Service Hydrologist Cara McCarthy said. “For the first time, some sites were snow-free on March 1. These areas can expect reduced summer streamflow.”

Some areas had near-normal precipitation, but it came as rain instead of snow, the agency said.

“We can't wait any longer, we have to prepare now for drought conditions that are in store for much of the state,” Inslee said Friday, when he made the declaration. “Snowpack is at record lows, and we have farms, vital agricultural regions, communities and fish that are going to need our support.”

An unusually warm winter has caused much of the precipitation to fall as rain, leaving mountain snowpack a fraction of normal. And a healthy snowpack is what would slowly feed rivers across the state and sustains farms and fish through the drier summer months, he said.

“We've been monitoring the snow conditions for months now, hoping for a late-season recovery,” state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said. “Now we're gearing up to help provide relief wherever we can when the time comes. Hardships are on the horizon, and we're going to be ready.”

Short- and long-range weather forecasts are not expected to bring relief, calling for warmer and drier weather.

With snowpack statewide averaging 27 percent of normal, 34 of the state's 62 watersheds are expected to receive less than 75 percent of their normal water supplies.

Natural Resources Conservation Service figures for March 1 show the Okanogan River basin had 79 percent of normal snowpack. Conconully Lake had 58 percent of normal snowpack and the Methow River basin had 85 percent of normal.

Ecology has requested $9 million in drought relief from the Legislature. The money would pay for agricultural and fisheries projects, emergency water-right permits, changes to existing water rights, and grant water-right transfers.

For now, water suppliers in the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett areas are in decent shape and are not projecting much hardship, the governor said.


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