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Friday, December 8, 2023
Dec. 8, 2023

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State’s drought bad, getting worse

Fish and farm crops are dying; fires rage; 2016 could top this

By , Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

Washington’s unprecedented drought continues to deepen, and there’s no end in sight, state officials said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

The update came the same week the state Department of Ecology began accepting applications for $16 million in relief funds. And Ecology Director Maia Bellon acknowledged the possibility that the need — and the drought — may last beyond just this year.

“We think that the money is sufficient for this season and, we’re hoping, for a potential drought next year,” Bellon said.

A dismal mountain snowpack has given way to unusually hot, dry conditions across Washington so far this summer. Officials watching the situation most closely on Friday painted a bleak picture.

Some farmers have seen their available water significantly curtailed. Crops have suffered. A fast-starting wildfire season has already burned more than 74,000 acres since June 1. High water temperatures and low flows have killed fish on many waterways, including the Columbia River. In all, 84 percent of the reporting stations on Washington waterways are showing below-normal flows, and 44 percent are at record lows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

“Our streams are off the charts. Literally off the charts,” Bellon said, noting that some streams have completely dried up for the first time on record.

In Southwest Washington, much of the drought-related concern centers around water and fish. With flows running low and warm, the state has already restricted fishing on two rivers, the East Fork of the Lewis River and the Washougal River, said Joe Stohr, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Washington and Oregon have closed sturgeon angling on the Columbia River upstream of Bonneville Dam, starting Saturday.

Meanwhile, a particularly dangerous wildfire season is well underway. The 74,000 acres burned so far this year is more than twice the amount at this point in 2014, said Mary Verner, deputy supervisor of the state Department of Natural Resources.

The weather has provided little relief, she said.

“Conditions remain very dry, and very hot,” Verner said. “We don’t lower our guard at any time.”

Said Bellon: “We’re getting less rain than Phoenix, Ariz.” (Indeed, Vancouver has recorded less precipitation than Phoenix since May 1, according to the National Weather Service.)

Washington’s emergency drought funds can be used for projects such as modifying water sources, deepening existing wells, drilling new ones, leasing water rights or building infrastructure to store or move water. Some of the work that happened during the state’s last drought in 2005 will help this time around, Bellon said. But the 2015 version is unlike anything Washington has ever experienced, she said.

The state had not received any applications for relief funds as of Friday morning, but expects to soon, according to the ecology department.

Is this year’s drought a one-time event or the beginning of a multiyear trend? That’s difficult to say. But a strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific Ocean does not bode well, said State Climatologist Nick Bond.

The weather phenomenon typically brings warm, mild conditions to the Northwest in the winter. Which means Washington’s paltry mountain snowpack may struggle to bounce back, Bond said.

“We should be prepared for a reduced snowpack at the end of next winter,” he said.

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