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Nooksack expected to be 25 percent below average. Here’s how the state is responding

Whatcom County’s Nooksack River watershed is among a large part of Washington state that fell under an expanded drought declaration issued Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

A total of 24 Washington river watersheds — including the Nooksack, the Upper Skagit, and the Lower Skagit-Samish — were included in the order, which could spell trouble for farmers and residential users as well as the salmon that require a constant supply of cold, clear water through summer.

Rivers are running low because of a lack of rainfall and warmer temperatures that are melting the mountain snowpack faster than normal.

Gradual snowmelt keeps rivers running high, clear and cold during the Northwest’s normally dry summer months.

“The emergency declaration allows us to expedite emergency water right permitting and make funds available to government entities to address hardships caused by drought conditions,” Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a statement Monday.

Some $2 million was appropriated for drought response by the 2019 Legislature. Ecology expects government funding for drought response will be available in early June, Bellon said in the statement.

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Areas of concern

Snowpack in the part of the North Cascades that includes Whatcom and Skagit counties was 39% of normal on May 20, according to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Bellingham rainfall was about 2.5 inches below normal from January through April, and May rainfall is far below normal, according to National Weather Service data.

Monthly high temperatures in Bellingham have been several degrees above normal this year — except for the extended February Freeze.

Nooksack River levels were at 6 feet Monday in Ferndale, about 2 feet below the historical mean, according to the Northwest River Forecast Center.

Extended forecasts from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center show a strong chance that the Northwest’s summer will be warmer and drier than normal and the U.S. Drought Monitor lists the Northwest as “abnormally dry” with drought development likely.

Statewide impact

In all, 24 watersheds were added to the drought emergency list — many on the Olympic Peninsula and in the North Cascades: Chelan, Colville, Cowlitz, Deschutes, Elwha-Dungeness, Entiat, Grays-Elochoman, Kennedy-Goldsborough, Kettle, Lower Chehalis, Lower Skagit-Samish, Lower Yakima, Lyre-Hoko, Naches, Nooksack, Queets-Quinault, Quilcene-Snow, Skokomish-Dosewallips, Soleduc, Stillaguamish, Upper Chehalis, Upper Skagit, Wenatchee, and Willapa.

Inslee announced the initial emergency drought declaration April 4 for the Methow, Okanogan and Upper Yakima basins.

Seattle, Everett and Tacoma regional water systems report that they have sufficient water supply for people and fish this summer, according to Ecology.

Two factors are considered for an emergency drought declaration, Ecology said: Water supply conditions that are or are projected to be at or below 75 percent of average and a projection of undue hardships. The state last declared a drought emergency in 2015.

The Olympian contributed to this story.
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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