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Drought area expanded

The reservoir level above Grand Coulee Dam today is lower than for the same date in recent years.

Photo by Roger Harnack


The reservoir level above Grand Coulee Dam today is lower than for the same date in recent years.

— Gov. Jay Inslee has expanded his earlier drought declarations to include the whole state.

He said the declaration was prompted by snowpack at historic lows, dwindling river levels and some irrigation districts cutting off water to farmers.

“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 state 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 being hauled farther upstream to cooler water, he said.

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 state Department of Natural Resources expects 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.

“This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced,” Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said. “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.

In Okanogan County, snow depth and water content are below average, with some areas that normally would have snow showing none at all on the April 1 snow survey by the U.S. National Resources Conservation Service.

On May 1, the service found 11 snow sites in Washington that were snow free for the first time ever. Of the 98 snow sites the Conservation Service measured in Washington, 66 of them are snow free, the governor’s office said.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported in April that 78 percent of streams statewide are running below or much below normal. Some are at historic lows.

“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 and joining 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.”

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