Drought expected to last into 2016

With El Niño brewing, officials hoping for best, preparing for worst

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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Even with the arrival of cooler weather and some rain, Washington’s prolonged drought is not over, state officials said Thursday.

What’s more, the drought is now expected to stretch into a second year, according to the state Department of Ecology. That means difficult conditions for farmers, fish and others may persist well into 2016 across the state.

“This drought has gone in the wrong direction, and we face winter with a huge water deficit,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

This year’s drought was spurred early on by a dismal mountain snowpack that gave way to the hottest summer on record in many places, including Vancouver. In Southwest Washington, the impacts have been felt more acutely by fish as record-low stream flows and warm water temperatures have created lethal conditions in places. Regional fish hatcheries scrambled to adapt by releasing fish early or moving fish from one location to another.

Even an average snow year in the coming winter could be enough to pull Washington out of its first drought in a decade. But with a strong El Ni?o brewing in the Pacific Ocean, that may not be in the cards. The climate phenomenon often brings the Northwest warmer, drier-than-normal winters.

“The climate deck may be stacked against us,” Bellon said. “While we hope for the best, we are preparing for the worst.”

Even if Washington experiences another down year for snowpack, it likely won’t be as bad as last winter, said state climatologist Nick Bond. Something on the order of 70 to 80 percent of normal might be possible, he said. Much of the state finished last winter with less than 20 percent or even 10 percent of the normal snowpack. Among the worst was the Lower Columbia basin in Southwest Washington.

It’s possible — but not likely — that Washington will see a repeat of those extreme conditions this winter, Bond said. It’s also possible that the region will bounce back with a healthy snowpack. The reality will likely fall somewhere in between, he said.

“All in all, the odds are strongly tilted toward another toasty winter,” Bond said. He added: “The bottom line is that we need to be prepared for a reduced snowpack at the end of next winter.”

The Washington Legislature earlier this year approved $16 million in emergency drought relief funds. About $6.5 million of that is committed so far, Bellon said, leaving another $9.5 million still available for the rest of 2015 and, if needed, 2016.

The ecology department has approved several grants for drought-related projects across the state. Emergency funds can be used for projects such as modifying water sources, deepening existing wells, drilling new wells, leasing water rights or building infrastructure to store or move water.

More than two-thirds of Washington remains in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The western third of the state, including Clark County, is one category lower at “severe drought,” according to the agency.

As part of Thursday’s conference call, state officials also addressed the apparent disconnect between their sense of urgency and that of local jurisdictions. The average urban resident may not feel impacted by water shortages elsewhere. In Vancouver, the city actually encouraged people to water their lawns more this summer as a way to reduce fire danger. (The city draws its drinking water from an expansive underground aquifer system that’s not expected to run short anytime soon.)

Part of the challenge is that water systems are managed locally by a host of different jurisdictions, said Ginny Stern, a hydrogeologist with the state Department of Health. Each water system is different, and each adapts to its own circumstances. Crafting a unified message for the entire state is difficult, Stern said.

State officials plan to have discussions with many partners in the coming months to help each other understand the drought and its impacts, Stern said. If the drought continues into a second consecutive summer in 2016, Washington will be much better prepared due to the work that’s already happened in 2015, Bellon said.

“This historic drought is not over,” Bellon said, “and we’re already planning for next year.”