Nooksack river basin now in drought conditions

Gov. Jay Inslee has added the Nooksack in Whatcom County to the river basins in the state that are in drought.

It was among 13 river basins added on Friday, April 17, as Inslee expanded his declaration of a drought emergency because of low snowpack and low runoff from snowmelt.

The others included the lower Skagit-Samish as well as the upper Skagit.

“Our river flows are expected to be their lowest in 64 years,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology, of the summer runoff.

That also was expected to be the case for the Nooksack river basin, according to Jeff Marti, Ecology’s drought coordinator.

Snow that falls in the mountains in winter acts as a reservoir for the state’s water supply, melting slowly in spring and summer to provide a critical water supply for rivers and streams and, by turns, fish and farms.

With the expansion, 24 of the state’s watersheds are now considered to be in drought. That makes up roughly 44 percent of Washington, according to state officials.

The recent snowfall in the mountains didn’t help much. The snowpack statewide was still just 24 percent of normal. That’s lower than 2005 when the last drought was declared statewide, officials said.

Meanwhile, the snowmelt that feeds the Nooksack watershed was just 11 percent of normal in early April, according Marti.

Those numbers might have gotten a bump with the recent snow in the North Cascades, Marti said, “but it’s no game changer.”

State officials are calling conditions a “snowpack drought” because while the snowpack has been dismal, rainfall has been normal or above normal in the state.

Water basins become part of the emergency declaration when:

• their snowpack is at 75 percent of normal or below.

• hardships are expected for people, farms and fish because of water shortages caused by runoff that’s far below normal.

“We aren’t experiencing many of these hardships today, but they are anticipated for the warm months ahead. Planning and taking action now is critical,” Bellon said. “Conditions are expected to get worse.”

Ecology has asked the Legislature for $9 million for drought relief.

The declaration triggers drought relief money, when it’s available, to help:

• mitigate the impacts of reduced stream flows on fish habitat.

• reduce hardships on agriculture in areas that rely on surface water for irrigation.

• communities that have vulnerable public water supplies, primarily smaller water systems that rely on surface water or shallow wells. They could be at risk for declining groundwater levels later in the year, officials said, although no problems have been reported yet.

“We’re watching closely the smaller rural water suppliers,” Bellon said.

Public water systems haven’t reported problems with water supply, state officials said.

Water supply also isn’t expected to be a problem yet for Whatcom County, including Lynden, Public Utility District No. 1 of Whatcom County, and Lake Whatcom.

The lake, which is a reservoir, is the drinking water source for Bellingham and parts of Whatcom County. It is full, thanks to a wet spring.

“We’re keeping an eye on it,” said Eric Johnston, assistant public works director for operations with the city of Bellingham.

But officials aren’t concerned now, Johnston said.

State officials have been talking to farmers, irrigation districts as well as state, tribal and local governments to prepare for the coming months.

So far, the agriculture community in Whatcom County is “feeling pretty positive” about water supply, said Jaclyn Hancock, hydrogeologist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Drought conditions have raised concern about wildfire danger in parts of the state as well as the harm insects and disease could do to weakened trees.

And fish throughout Washington state will struggle because of lower water levels and warmer temperatures that could bring disease, according to Joe Stohr of the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

The Nooksack basin is home to the endangered chinook, steelhead and bull trout. Officials are worried about their migration being stymied in the coming months in places where the water is too low. Those areas of concern are Padden, Canyon and Skookum creeks as well as the south fork of the Nooksack River.

Stohr said two access areas, at Silver Lake and Lake Whatcom, could be an issue if water levels drop so low that people can’t use the boat ramps.