Drought Declared in Washington

Governor Inslee’s recent declaration of drought in 24 of Washington’s 62 watersheds has triggered a flurry of activity.   By law, drought is declared when a region’s water supply is at 75% of normal (or worse) and this water deficit will cause “hardship” to water uses and users.

04172015 drought areas - dept of ecology

Washington has experienced a fairly normal year for rain, but air temperatures over the winter were nearly 5 degrees F higher than normal, making the 2014-15 winter the warmest on record.  As a result, snow fall was scant.  Mountain snowpack is like a natural reservoir.  As accumulated snow melts over the summer, it percolates into groundwater and feeds the headwaters of streams.   Water will flow in streams during summer months, even with no rain, as a result of snowpack and groundwater reserves.  This year, snowpack is substantially less than normal for the Olympic, Cascade and Northern Rockies mountains, and as a consequence, we are facing a very dry summer season in Washington.

Western US Snowpack (4-1-15)

The biggest impact will be on fisheries.  Irrigated agriculture is also taking a hit, especially in the Yakima basin.  Municipal water supplies, especially for cities with big reservoirs (e.g., Tacoma, Seattle, Everett) appear to be in good shape.

In addition to physical aspects, drought has economic and political dimensions.  The Department of Ecology convenes a Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC) to make recommendations about

drought activities.  The WSAC has requested a $9 million appropriation to drill emergency wells, expedite water transfers, and provide loan and grant funding to farmers.

In an attempt to alleviate instream flow depletion, Ecology and others are conducting “reverse auctions” in the Yakima, Walla Walla and Dungeness basins.

Western US Summer Streamflow Forecast (4-1-15)

Essentially the state offers to lease water rights from farmers who are willing to forego irrigation this summer.  The goal is to keep water in upper tributaries that provide habitat for endangered salmon species.

Ecology is also seeking to lease or purchase existing water rights to offset use of emergency wells in the lower Yakima Valley.  These wells were drilled in 1977 but may not be used except in drought circumstances.  Since 1977, lawsuits and a US Geological Survey study have established that virtually all groundwater in the Yakima basin feeds into the lower Yakima River.  Thus, pumping from emergency wells without mitigation would impair existing users and instream flow water rights.   The bottom line is that water in the Yakima River basin is over-allocated, and in water-short years, junior water rights (called “pro-ratables”) take a big hit.  Ecology will not authorize use of emergency wells without mitigation.

This raises public policy questions.  Should it be the responsibility of Ecology to find “mitigation water” for junior users during a drought?   Should Washington taxpayers underwrite the purchase of water for junior users?

Of particular concern, when junior users convert from annual to perennial crops, dramatically increasing the financial risk associated with drought, who bears that risk?  The water users, or the public?

The Legislature has also convened a “Joint Legislative Committee on Drought” which is meeting regularly to discuss drought actions.   Their meetings can be viewed on TVW.

The drought declaration may be extended to cover even more watersheds, and a statewide declaration is even possible.   Large Puget Sound municipalities are comfortable with full reservoirs, and do not want a drought declaration that would lead their customers to conserve (and thereby reduce revenues).   But, smaller purveyors and stream flows around the state will be hurting given the snowpack scenario.

Drought declarations can lead to much mischief in the public policy arena.  CELP will report on drought activities throughout the spring and summer months to assess how well agencies and the Legislature respond in protecting public resources, i.e., public waters and public funds.