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Smoke-choked skies and less irrigation water could be in Tri-Cities summer plans

Video shows an aerial view of Kennewick after the fires come close to burning down homes

Drone footage provided by the City of Richland shows you the aftermath of the Kennewick fires and how close they were to burning down homes.
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Drone footage provided by the City of Richland shows you the aftermath of the Kennewick fires and how close they were to burning down homes.

Smoky skies and limited irrigation water might be in store for the Tri-Cities this summer.

The good news is that wildfire danger should be no worse than normal for the Mid-Columbia, according to the latest projections of the National Interagency Fire Center.

But areas to the north and south of the Tri-Cities may be at increased risk for wildfires this summer, raising the possibility of stagnant smoke settling over the Tri-Cities for a third summer in a row.

On Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for the Upper Yakima Basin, which provides irrigation water for some of the Tri-Cities area.

Also, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dropped its forecast for the water supply from the 90 percent predicted a month ago to 77 percent for junior water rights holders and the Kennewick Irrigation District.

Dense smoke
Dense smoke from regional wildfires blanketed this Rancho Reata neighborhood, the Mid-Columbia and much of eastern Washington in September 2017 Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Water supply for the Tri-Cities

At this point KID is not projecting mandatory scheduling of water use, but it will know more in a month, said Jason McShane, engineering and operations manager for the Kennewick Irrigation District.

During the drought of 2015, KID water users were required to limit the days and number of times they watered their lawns.

“We have seen many years where April 1 conditions were below normal, but the basin water conditions improved in the spring,” said Chuck Garner, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Yakima Project River Operations supervisor.

Precipitation was just 31 percent of normal in March at the Yakima Basin reservoir sites and the watersheds above them, McShane said.

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Temperatures should be warmer than usual in Washington state through June, according to the National Weather Service. Courtesy National Weather Service

The dry month left reservoirs at 78 percent of normal volume and upper Yakima basin snowpack that’s needed to feed the Yakima River at 75 percent of normal by April 1.

The forecast of 77 percent of entitlements for those with junior water rights is based on river flows, precipitation, snowpack and reservoir storage as of April 1, along with estimates of future precipitation and river flows.

The Kennewick Irrigation District received prorated water like those with junior water rights, but its contract with the Bureau of Reclamation usually means it gets some more water than those with junior water rights.

Holders of senior water rights are expected to receive full water supplies.

The estimate of 77 percent of entitlements for those with junior water rights is based on a range, with the worst-case scenario 57 percent of water available and the best 94 percent.

State prepares for the worst

Being on the high end of the range will depend on more snowfall in the mountains and rain at the right time and place.

But drought conditions in the Upper Yakima, Methow and Okanogan water basins have the governor concerned.

While summer water supplies in the Upper Yakima and Methow basins are estimated in the 70 to 80 percent range, the Okanogan is expected to be 58 percent of normal.

Although the Tri-Cities is expected to have more rain than usual this month, the weather for the next three months in Washington state is expected to be warmer and drier than usual, according to the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service.

The Department of Ecology wanted to start preparing for potential water shortages as soon as possible, said Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

Dr. Kate Sutherland, a pulmonologist at Saint Alphonsus Medical Group in Boise, Idaho explains the first four air quality indexes and precautions people should take when heavy smoke looms in the air.

The department is requesting $2 million from the state Office of Financial Management for drought response programs.

The money could be used for installing emergency facilities, providing water leasing and supporting operations changes to move water through tributaries and support salmon survival.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture is advising farmers to be prepared for limited water supplies. High-value crops such as applies, berries, pears, cherries and wine grapes could be at risk.

KID residential customers should use water wisely as the water season starts, McShane said.

Lawns should be trained to grow deep roots to withstand dry periods by watering grass less frequently but for longer durations.

The district is expected to start receiving water Monday from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is about one week late because of the late winter snow this year. A couple weeks will be needed to get the water turned on for all customers.

Wildfire season predictions

The potential for signficant wildland fire from this month through July is about normal for most of the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Service.

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Wildfire potential in Oregon and Washington is “above normal” already, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in a report issued April 1. National Interagency Fire Center Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

But the places that have above normal wildlife fire potential are to the northwest and southwest of the Tri-Cities.

For the last two summers smoky air settled over the Tri-Cities for days at a time.

The air quality was rated as poor as “very unhealthy” at times, driving people indoors, closing swimming pools and canceling end-of-summer athletic practices for student athletes.

At times, the smoke drifted south from long-burning forest fires in British Columbia and it other times it drifted in from the southwest from wildfires in Oregon or northern California.

The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting above normal fire potential for Washington state west of the Cascade mountains from April through July, with increased potential also to the north in Alaska in April and May.

By July, the potential for significant wildlife fire increases in northern California and western Oregon.

Canada also is predicting worse than usual fire weather in British Columbia in the upcoming fire season, including in July and August.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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