A snowpack-related drought emergency declared by Gov. Jay Inslee for the Yakima Basin and Walla Walla makes it possible for state agencies to act now to better manage water for farms and fish.
Inslee made the decision Friday, shortly after the federal Bureau of Reclamation predicted some Yakima Basin irrigation districts may receive only about 73 percent of their normal water supply.
Melting snow typically helps fill the rivers during the summer. But record high temperatures in the Cascade Mountains mean snow is melting daily, cutting into an already critically low snow supply for the Yakima Basin. Much of the winter precipitation came as rain, not snow.
Water is available now, but officials expect shortages in July and August, when tree fruit and other crops need water. The areas in Eastern Washington to be hit by the drought represent a large portion of the state’s high-value crops, including apples, wine grapes, cherries, pears and potatoes.
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The drought also means fishing and hunting seasons could be limited, the chance of damage caused by wildfires could be higher and some Walla Walla-area water utilities may struggle to provide enough drinking water.
“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 in a statement. “Snowpack is at record lows, and we have farms, vital agricultural regions, communities and fish that are going to need our support.”
Maia Bellon, state Department of Ecology director, said officials hoped a late-season snowstorm would turn the snowpack situation around.
That hasn’t happened, and long-range forecasts call for drier, warmer weather, she said. Snowpack ranges from 8 percent to 45 percent of normal across the Cascade Mountains, and 67 percent of normal in the Walla Walla region.
“What we are experiencing is essentially a snowpack drought,” Bellon said.
Declaring a drought now helps state and local agencies better prepare to provide water during the summer for some of the state’s high-value, perennial crops including tree fruit, said Kirk Cook, Department of Agriculture hydrogeologist.
The governor’s declaration gives Ecology emergency powers to approve drought-related water right permits, changes to existing water rights and water right transfers, Bellon said.
Ecology, as the lead agency responding to the drought, also has requested $9 million from the Legislature, Bellon said. That would primarily help with water supplies for fish and agriculture, and could help pay to drill emergency wells and modify fish hatchery operations.
“Conditions are expected to get worse, so we are gearing up to provide for the most critical needs wherever we can,” she said.
If river and stream flows are reduced, hatcheries might need to release fish early, and officials might have to secure water supplies for those fisheries, said Joe Stohr, Department of Fish and Wildlife deputy director.
The drought could block fish passage, bring water to temperatures up to the point where they are lethal to fish, and cut into spawning and rearing areas, Stohr said. The impact on salmon might not be seen for years.
The fire danger could be particularly dire.
About 3 million acres of forest on the east slope of the Cascades essentially are a tinderbox for wildfires because of the drought, insect infestations and disease, said Mary Verner, Department of Natural Resources deputy supervisor for resource protection and administration.
Washington residents need to be especially careful with fires, she said.
Low stream flows in the Walla Walla area could affect drinking water systems that depend on shallow groundwater wells or springs, said Ginny Stern, Department of Health hydrogeologist. There is no immediate threat to Yakima area drinking water systems.
Still, “all people should be using water wisely,” she said.
Some of the $9 million from the state could help pay for temporary water transfers between irrigation districts, so those with limited water can lease some from those who have senior water rights that can’t be limited, Cook said.
Irrigation districts that could see their water use cut back because of the drought include Kennewick and Roza. Benton and Sunnyside Valley irrigation districts have some water the government can’t limit, but they also have water that can be cut back.
It’s possible that Kennewick and Roza irrigation districts may pursue temporarily leasing water from another irrigation district.
Seth Defoe, Kennewick Irrigation District’s planning manager, said it would be helpful to have state money available to help with drought response and possible water leasing costs.
KID does have a $1 million drought fund, but half of that money already is being used this year to pay for automated gates that allow the flow of water to be controlled remotely and will make the system more efficient, Defoe said.
Roza Irrigation District officials plan to wait for the April water supply from the Bureau of Reclamation before making any decisions about leasing water or shutting the irrigation system down mid-season, said Scott Revell, the district’s manager. Customers should check the irrigation district’s website for up-to-date drought information.
The Mid-Columbia experienced a dry winter, which means there isn’t much ground moisture for area farmers.
Wine grapes are relatively drought-resistant, but lack of water could be problematic for tree fruit, hops and row crops, which all need more water than grapevines. Many growers have added wine grapes to their mix to be able to better handle droughts.
“Wine grapes are probably best able to survive drought than any crop we grow in the valley or in the area,” said Dick Boushey, a Grandview grower who also manages some Red Mountain vineyards.
Inslee’s declaration of an emergency also will allow farmers who previously dug emergency drought relief wells to use them.
At this point, the drought is regional. The last statewide drought was in 2005. Along with the Yakima Basin and the Walla Walla area, an emergency drought has been declared for the Naches, Wenatchee and Entiat river watersheds, and the Olympic Peninsula.