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So it’s supposed to be a warm, dry spring — what does that mean for salmon and farms?

Happy Valley kindergarteners release nearly 300 salmon fry into Connelly Creek

Three kindergarten classes from Happy Valley Elementary School released nearly 300 chum salmon fry into Connelly Creek in Bellingham, Wash., on Thursday, March 28, 2019. The classes raised the salmon from eggs they received in January 2019.
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Three kindergarten classes from Happy Valley Elementary School released nearly 300 chum salmon fry into Connelly Creek in Bellingham, Wash., on Thursday, March 28, 2019. The classes raised the salmon from eggs they received in January 2019.

Northwest Washington is officially in an abnormally dry period, meteorologists say, a precursor to drought that’s prompting worry among salmon experts, farmers and officials who manage water supplies.

And Ferndale is moving quickly to set up a rationing schedule amid fears of another hot, dry spring and summer.

With nearly four months of below-normal rainfall — and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predictions for a warm, dry spring — water managers fear that what’s left of the winter snowpack will melt before summer when it’s needed the most.

“That is definitely not good news for salmon,” said Rachel Vasak, executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

“It looks like we are taking our normal summers and extending them into spring,” she told The Bellingham Herald.

Early snowmelt affects both stream flow and water temperature for species, such as juvenile coho and adult chinook, which need cold water with deep pools to thrive, Vasak said.

“An extended drought is going to complicate that, particularly for the spring chinook, which is the primary food for orcas,” she said.

Elementary school students in Bellingham have been learning about the importance of salmon to the Northwest’s ecosystem in recent weeks, raising tiny chum salmon from eggs in their classrooms. They recently released their fry into local creeks.

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Happy Valley Elementary School kindergarten teacher Bridget Porter displays her chum salmon fry pouring them into Connelly Creek in Bellingham, Wash., on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom farms feeling heat

Greg Ebe, who farms about 1,000 acres of seed potatoes between Lynden and Ferndale, said in an interview that he’s concerned about the continual warmer, drier summers, as well.

“Water is essential to our existence,” he said. “Agriculture in Whatcom County is pretty fragile right now.”

Ebe said he’s switched to drip irrigation that saves water, and his farming operations use groundwater rather than river water.

It’s not just a Whatcom County issue, said Jeff Marti, drought coordinator for the state Department of Ecology.

“We’re already looking at — including the Nooksack basin — a summer with much below-normal runoff forecast,” Marti said told The Herald.

That could mean less water from April through September, possibly resulting in limits on river water diversion for crops and rural wells that run low and restrictions on residential water use for gardening, lawn-watering and car-washing, Marti said.

“It’s a critical time for water, with irrigation, summer lawns and then the skies typically shut down,” he said. “The runoff forecast is expected to be the second-lowest year in the past 71 years — second only to 2015.”

In 2015, Whatcom County blueberry and red raspberry growers suffered losses because of high temperatures, according to an Ecology report.

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Happy Valley Elementary School kindergarten teacher Bridget Porter assists her student _____, 6, as she pours her chum salmon fry into Connelly Creek in Bellingham, Wash., on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

‘Drought conditions ... much more the norm’

Last summer, Ferndale was forced to limit water use, and its City Council is considering a pro-active rationing measure at its Monday meeting.

Water officials in Bellingham aren’t worried at this point, because the city’s Lake Whatcom reservoir isn’t dependent on snowpack, said Amy Cloud, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.

But monthly rainfall in Bellingham has been lower than normal over the past four months, according to National Weather Service records.

March has been particularly warm and dry, with about one-third normal rainfall and high temperatures about 2 degrees above normal, according to National Weather Service records.

Bellingham set four high-temperature records in March.

Summers in Northwest Washington have been abnormally warm and dry over the past several years, according to National Weather Service records.

Snowpack in the North Cascades is 76 percent of normal, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Mt. Baker Ski Area showed 2018-2019 snowfall of 461 inches through Feb. 28, far below the 15-year average of 663 inches.

Whatcom County officials are concerned, too, and Public Utility District No. 1 has commissioned a drought contingency plan that’s now under review by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

PUD 1’s study brought together representatives of industry, agriculture, fisheries, tribes and water suppliers among others, said Jim Bucknell of RH2 Engineering in Bellingham, who wrote the report.

“Drought conditions now are probably much more the norm, rather than the exception,” Bucknell told The Herald.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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