By Dee Camp
OLYMPIA – Some Okanogan and Methow basin irrigators and other water users could face restrictions this summer because of expected low water levels.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in the Methow, Okanogan and upper Yakima basins on April 4.
Despite significant snow in parts of Washington, water supply shortages are projected in those basins, he said.
The state Department of Ecology forecasts summer water supplies using data from state and national agencies. The Methow’s flow is projected at 72 percent of normal, while the Okanogan is expected to be 58 percent of normal and the upper Yakima at 74 percent.
“The low snow pack and early runoff, with … precipitation not expected to make up the difference, means that some irrigators will be shut off much earlier than they normally are and will need to call our hotline before they can water their crops,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder of the state Department of Ecology’s Yakima office.
“These are the water users who have water rights that are ‘junior’ to the adopted streamflow rules,” she said.
Minimum streamflow levels vary, depending on the time of year. When flows fall below minimums set by rule, junior water rights holders need to call to see whether they can irrigate, she said.
About 100 users in the Okanogan and Similkameen basins, combined, are affected, as are 62 Methow Valley users.
The Okanogan was last regulated starting June 29, 2016, “which was fairly early,” Redfield-Wilder said. The Similkameen’s last regulation was Aug. 3, 2018, while the Methow’s was June 30, 2016.
“We expect to issue orders earlier than normal in these watersheds, due to current and projected water conditions,” said Redfield-Wilder. “Snowpack levels in Canada that feed the Okanogan River are well below normal. Runoff is early – that is why we’re capturing water in Osoyoos Lake about a month earlier than normal … to better store water for summer irrigation.”
The department announced March 21 that it was raising holding back water at Zosel Dam near Oroville a month earlier than normal, with the goal of bringing the lake level to its maximum mandated operational level of 912 feet by early May, rather than June 1.
Inslee noted that areas declared in drought emergency are prime agricultural regions and stand to lose valuable crops if faced with water supply shortages this spring and summer.
“We must take steps to ensure that Washingtonians have the water they need to sustain their farms and livestock,” Inslee said. “Climate change means that we will continue to see lower water supplies all over the state and we need to plan now for the impact.”
Ecology officials have been keeping a close eye on water supplies in north central Washington throughout the winter, said department Director Maia Bellon. She said they felt it was important to start preparing for potential shortages as soon as possible.
“By declaring a drought emergency, we can offer vital support to these communities,” she said. “We also empower our partner state agencies and local conservation and irrigation districts to provide a range of emergency services.”
“A drought declaration means conservation districts and Department of Agriculture may be able to provide assistance under drought provisions,” said Redfield-Wilder.
The coming months are forecast to be warmer and drier than normal, putting more areas at risk. Bellon, the state’s official water supply manager, said her department will continue to monitor watersheds of concern closely.
The state Department of Agriculture advises growers to prepare and plan for limited water supplies. Many high-value crops such as apples, berries, pears, cherries and wine grapes could be at risk.
Department of Ecology is requesting $2 million from the state Office of Financial Management for drought response programs. That could fund projects such as installing emergency facilities; providing water leasing, and supporting operational changes to move water through tributaries and support salmon survival.
“Last year your area was experiencing extreme flooding and the hydrograph showed flow levels off the charts,” said Redfield-Wilder. “This year the flows are entirely different, with runoff expected to be early and with a lack of snowpack, flows extremely low.
“This could also impact fish, which the fish managers will be keeping an eye on and responding to under the provisions provided with a drought declaration.”
Washington is projected to have more frequent droughts as the climate warms, said Inslee’s office. To meet the needs of the state’s rural communities, farmers and fish during droughts, the Department of Ecology has asked the Legislature to modernize the state’s decades-old drought laws.
Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service’s snow survey field measurements show lower-than-average snow water content readings for nearly ever snow course measured at the end of March for the April 1 water report, according to information from Stan Janowicz, the agency’s district conservationist in Okanogan.
By snow course, they include:
North and west of Conconully
-Mutton Creek – Elevation 5,700 feet, snow depth 27 inches, water content 7.4 inches, 58 percent of 30-year average.
-Rusty Creek – Elevation 4,000 feet, snow depth nine inches, water content 1.9 inches, 39 percent of 30-year average.
-Muckamuck Sno-Tel – Elevation 4,470 feet, snow depth 13 inches, water content 3.2 inches, new site.
Middle Methow, Loup Loup
-Loup Loup Campground – Elevation 4,140 feet, snow depth 38 inches, water content 5.0 inches, 57 percent of 30-year average.
-Starvation Mountain – Elevation 6,760 feet, snow depth 38 inches, water content 9.4 inches, 61 percent of 30-year average.
-Mazama – Elevation 2,180 feet, snow depth 14 inches, water content 5.2 inches, 98 percent of short-term average.
West of Loomis
-Cold Creek Strip – Elevation 6,070 feet, snow depth 22 inches, water content 5.7 inches, 67 percent of 30-year average.
-Toats Coulee Campground – Elevation 2,690 feet, snow depth one inch, water content 0.2 inch, statistically not valid.
Bonaparte Lake area
-Lost Lake – Elevation 4,075 feet, snow depth 18 inches, water content 5.4 inches, 87 percent of short-term average.
-PettiJohn Creek – Elevation 4,310 feet, snow depth 13 inches, water content 4.6 inches, 85 percent of short-term average.
-Bonaparte South – Elevation 4,740 feet, snow depth eight inches, water content 2.3 inches, 46 percent of short-term average.
West of Loomis
-Duncan Ridge – Elevation 5,420 feet, snow depth six inches, water content 1.6 inches, 34 percent of short-term average.
-Irene’s Camp (Long Swamp area) – Elevation 5,465 feet, 23 inches, water content 7.1 inches, 83 percent of 30-year average.