Snow shortage worries Yakima River water users

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 16, 2014 

It's too soon to hit a panic button declaring a drought in the Mid-Columbia, experts say.

But unless prayers for snow in the Cascade Mountains are answered, Yakima River water users may find themselves short this summer.

"If we were getting the snow we really need, the passes would be closed," said Scott Pattee, U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist.

At the beginning of the month, Washington needed 200 percent of the average snowfall during February and March to catch up, Pattee said.

It doesn't take much this time of year to increase snowpack, but the storms that have come through so far were average, he said. It's only because there has been no snow to speak of since the beginning of December that they seemed abnormal.

The Kennewick, Columbia and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts all use Yakima River Basin water to serve properties in Benton and Yakima counties.

Without water, many of the Mid-Columbia's crops, including potatoes, tree fruit and grapes, can't grow. Residents of Kennewick, Finley, Richland and West Richland also use Yakima River water to water lawns and gardens alive.

The reservoirs for the Yakima River Basin are storing about 116 percent of the average water for this time of year, thanks to carryover water from the two previous good water supply years.

But those reservoirs only store about 1 million acre feet of water, when 2 million to 2.5 million acre feet of water is needed in the Yakima Basin each year for irrigation, instream flows and some municipal uses, said Jim Trull, Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District manager.

In an average year, the water yield is about 3 million acre feet, he said. But so far, this year hasn't shaped up as average.

The recent snow on the valley floor should help reduce some of the demand for water in the spring, Trull said.

Since October, it's been unusually dry, said Nic Loyd, Washington State University's AgWeatherNet meteorologist. This is the time of year when the mountain snow pack in the Cascades builds up.

Snowpack, which Washington uses as a reservoir, hasn't improved enough yet to prevent a drought, Pattee said. Snowpack for the Lower Yakima River Basin was up to about 72 percent of the average as of earlier this week. That's up about 7 percent from the beginning of the month.

As the snowpack melts during the spring and summer, it helps feed the Lower Yakima River Basin.

The impact of a potential drought on some Mid-Columbia water users is tempered because some irrigation districts, including Columbia and Sunnyside Valley, have senior water rates that the state and federal government can't limit.

But for junior water right holders, the state can prorate their water rights when there is a drought, meaning that the water users will only get a percentage of the water they have the right to use when water is plentiful.

Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District, which provides irrigation water in Yakima and Benton counties, is in a better situation than some others because two-thirds of the district's water rights are senior, Trull said. Only receiving a percentage of one-third of the district's junior water rights could be a significant issue, but it's not at the same level as those who only have junior water rights.

Columbia Irrigation District is the last to take water out of the Yakima River, said Joel Teeley, general manager and board secretary.

"There is usually enough water for us," he said.

Kennewick Irrigation District does have junior water rights. The board of directors will discuss drought planning at its Tuesday meeting.

It's not just Washington that has been hit with lower-than-average levels of rain and snow. Most of the Northwest, including Oregon and California, are in the same situation, with less-than-average precipitation between November and January, research climatologist Greg Jones said in a forecast earlier this month.

While forecasts are heading toward normal precipitation and snow through April, Jones, with Southern Oregon University in Ashland, cautioned in his forecast that likely would not be enough to catch up on the current deficits.

For most of the basins, snow doesn't normally accumulate past April 1, Pattee said. While snow has accumulated up until May before, it's not likely.

About 70 percent to 80 percent of the state's surface water supply comes from mountain snowpack, Pattee said.

Lack of storage means water concerns for the Yakima Basin aren't unusual.

A statewide drought nine years ago ended up better than expected because of a cool, wet, long spring, despite having worse snowpack than this year, Pattee said. In 2005, it didn't stop raining until the end of June.

During several winters, the snowpack has started out poor into February, but then the state got enough precipitation in February and March to catch up, Loyd said.

The next week looks like there will be some buildup of mountain snow, Loyd said. Even a few large snowstorms in the mountains would help.

"We're making up ground, but we are still below normal," Loyd said.

But after that, it's back to dry conditions for the foreseeable future, he said.

One saving grace is that the Snake River is in good shape, with 94 percent of the normal snowpack, Pattee said. Walla Walla snowpack is near average, about 90 percent.

The upper Columbia also got good snow early on, and looks to be in good shape for this year, Pattee said. That's critical for power generation since some of the other tributaries may be lacking and California likely will be desperate for power due to its lack of water.

That means the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District, which is part of the Columbia Basin Project, is expecting normal, adequate water supplies and delivery, said Dave Solem, the district's secretary/manager. Most of the snowpack to feed the Columbia River is in Canada.

Pattee said officials will have a better idea of the water supply in the beginning of March, when the federal Bureau of Reclamation will release its first water supply forecast for the year.

Trull said the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District is waiting for that forecast before making any decisions about how to handle water supplies this year.

But it may be difficult to know how junior water right holders will be affected until the first of April, Pattee said.

Caution is the best advice officials say they can give for now. This year may not be best one for activities that require plentiful water, such as replacing a perennial crop or planting a lawn.

State and federal agencies met early February to discuss a possible drought. As of the beginning of the month, more than 90 percent of the state was suffering from a moderate drought and statewide snowpack was at 55 percent of average.

The next meeting of the Water Supply Availability Committee, which will decide on whether to recommend Gov. Jay Inslee declare a drought in any region in the state, is scheduled for March 7.

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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512;

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