Washington state prepares for a second year of drought

Apple trees are dry and brittle because of lack of water at this orchard near Prosser in Benton County in this September 2015 photo. Despite recent rains and cooler temperatures, the state’s 2015 drought isn’t over yet.
Apple trees are dry and brittle because of lack of water at this orchard near Prosser in Benton County in this September 2015 photo. Despite recent rains and cooler temperatures, the state’s 2015 drought isn’t over yet. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The state is preparing for a second year of drought, saying recent rainfall and cooler weather have provided little relief as 68 percent of the state remains in extreme drought.

“This historic drought is not over,” said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology. “We face winter with a huge water deficit.”

The impact hasn’t been as great here as in the central and eastern parts of the state. Still, much of Western Washington, including Whatcom County, remained in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

However, the recent rain did help the Nooksack River basin, which includes most of Whatcom County, returning stream flows to just below average as of Thursday, Sept. 24. And water utilities throughout Whatcom County reported that while there was more of a draw on their systems this summer, they didn’t have problems with supply.

A dismal snowpack last winter and months of unseasonably dry, hot weather led to the drought. Rivers dried, fish died, forests burned, water supplies tightened.

Forks, the rainiest place in the country, put emergency water restrictions into place this month.

State officials who have been monitoring the drought and providing aid said Thursday, Sept. 24, that now was the time to prepare for a possible second year of drought given that another warm winter is in the forecast because of El Nino and an area of warm water off the Pacific that’s been called “the warm blob.”

“Rains are desperately needed to recharge these reservoirs and even then that won’t be enough to get us through next summer. We need winter snowpack in the mountains, what we call our frozen reservoir,” Bellon said. “There’s growing concern we may not get it.”

Ecology has been leading the state’s drought oversight.

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.

2015 is expected to be the warmest year going back to the 1890s, when the state started keeping records. That warmth caused the poor snowpack last winter, according to Nick Bond, state climatologist.

“The odds are tilted toward another toasty winter,” he said, noting it’s also expected to be drier.

“We do not expect the snowpack coming up this winter to be as poor as last winter,” Bond said, adding it would be 70 to 80 percent of normal.

The drought’s impact varied, and some areas weren’t as hard hit. But officials said that statewide:

▪ About 1.5 million juvenile coho and steelhead salmon as well as rainbow trout died in state hatcheries because of disease and other issues related to drought, said Joe Stohr, deputy director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That included about 5,400 rainbow trout at the Whatcom Falls Park hatchery.

▪ Wildfires burned 1 million acres of Department of Natural Resources land, and destroyed 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat maintained by Fish and Wildlife in Okanogan and Chelan counties.

“No area of the state was left untouched. The fire behavior was extreme due to very dry vegetation,” said Robert Johnson, wildfire division manager for the Department of Natural Resources.

Smoke from wildfires made the air bad, including in Whatcom County.

▪ Agriculture losses were worse than feared, although it will take a few more months for the state to determine the dollar value of those losses.

In Whatcom County, drought meant smaller and lighter raspberries. Farmlands that weren’t irrigated didn’t yield as much grass for feed. Seed potato farmers were hit, too, according to Rich Appel, a dairy farmer who is head of Whatcom Family Farmers.

Farmers also couldn’t, as they have in the past, rely on mid-summer rain of up to 6 inches to help bolster irrigation, a lot of which uses groundwater pulled from wells.

“This was a real odd year where we didn’t get those rains,” Appel said, calling that moisture a “lifeblood.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

Drought information

A look at the drought throughout Washington is on the state Department of Ecology’s website at ecy.wa.gov/drought.