Will drought declaration reach county?

The 'slow-moving emergency' takes more than low snow

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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The Olympic Peninsula, one of three areas affected by this month's drought declaration, would need about 1,365 percent of its normal snowfall in the few weeks between now and early April to catch up to a normal snowpack, according to the state Department of Ecology. The area currently has about 10 percent of its normal snowpack for this time of year.

The Olympic Peninsula, one of three areas affected by this month’s drought declaration, would need about 1,365 percent of its normal snowfall in the few weeks between now and early April to catch up to a normal snowpack, according to the state Department of Ecology. The area currently has about 10 percent of its normal snowpack for this time of year.

Don’t let the rain fool you.

Many parts of Washington are in a precarious position as the Northwest’s wet season approaches its end. Despite near-normal precipitation since fall, mountain snow — the region’s “frozen reservoir” — looks bleak. Bad enough, in fact, for Gov. Jay Inslee to officially declare a drought emergency in three areas earlier this month.

“It’s a snowpack drought, is how we’re phrasing it at this point in time,” said Dan Partridge, a state Department of Ecology spokesman.

The governor’s declaration affects the Olympic Peninsula, a portion of central Washington east of the Cascades, and the Walla Walla area. It’s possible that other parts of the state may fall under drought declarations as the year progresses, said Chris Anderson, a specialist in the ecology department’s Water Resources Program. How the drought situation plays out will depend on what the coming months bring, he said.

“This is going to be a real slow-moving emergency,” Anderson said.

Despite its dismal snowpack, Southwest Washington was not included in the initial drought declaration. The state uses two specific criteria to make that call: An area must have a water supply below 75 percent of normal, and water users in the area must face the likelihood of “undue hardships” as a result of the shortage.

The Lower Columbia basin in Southwest Washington had just 11 percent of its normal snowpack for this time of year as of Friday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s low enough to easily put the region below the 75-percent cutoff. But other factors give Clark County an advantage that may keep it out of drought territory.

Much of the county’s water supply comes from underground aquifers, which are more stable than surface sources such as rivers and streams. The area is also directly connected to the Columbia River and its broad reach that stretches into Canada. (The Upper Columbia basin near the Canadian border currently boasts the state’s healthiest snowpack, at 70 percent of normal.)

All of that isn’t to say groundwater-dependent areas like Clark County won’t be affected by the drought. It just may not happen as fast, Partridge said.

“Groundwater and surface water are connected,” Partridge said. “It’s usually surface water where you see the impact first.”

The Ecology Department has numerous options to help drought-affected areas, Partridge said. Those include drilling emergency wells, deepening existing wells and leasing water rights for irrigators, he said. The department has asked the state legislature for $9 million for drought relief.

The state experienced droughts in 2001 and 2005. Conditions also appeared ripe for a diminished snowpack and possible drought in 2010, before a cold, wet spring reversed that trend, according to the ecology department.

Drought or no drought, it’s always a good idea for people to be mindful of their own water use, Anderson said. People can conserve water both indoors and outdoors, he said.

The state’s water supply and snowpack affects agriculture, stream flows, fish, power generation and other things, carrying broad ecological and economic implications.

“I would say that this is a concern for all of us in the state,” Anderson said.