Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought Friday — citing historically low snowpack, dwindling rivers and rising temperatures that have plunged nearly the entire West Coast into official emergency status.
“The drought has deepened dramatically over the past few weeks,” said Inslee, a Democrat. “It has spread quickly and now encompasses all of the state of Washington. We are already seeing severe impacts in several areas of the state, and conditions are expected to worsen over time.”
But in a climatic quirk peculiar to the Pacific Northwest this year, Washington's deepening drought is accompanied by regular rainfall, and the major population centers of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Spokane are not expected to notice that disaster lurks.
This is a snowpack drought, not a rain drought, and it's expected to hit rural Washington hardest. The state Department of Agriculture predicts $1.2 billion in crop losses. Wildlife officials are scrambling to figure out how to save the salmon. Firefighters are poised for disaster.
“Snowpack is down to just 16% of normal,” Inslee said. “This is an unprecedented low. Several mountain areas have already melted out and have little to no measurable snow left.... On the Olympic Peninsula, where there would normally be 80 inches of snow today in the mountains, the glacier lilies are blooming.”
No mandatory rationing has been ordered, but because conditions recently worsened, Inslee took the step to declare the statewide emergency. Fellow Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California declared a statewide drought emergency in 2014, and last month ordered municipalities across the state to cut water use by 25%.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has declared a drought emergency in seven of the largest counties. Seven other counties have requested that an emergency be declared. Combined, that's about two-thirds of the state.
A map on the Oregon Water Resources Department's website, updated Thursday, shows that drought is either unavoidable or likely statewide.
In a May 1 speech to the League of Conservation voters, Oregon's Brown, also a Democrat, blamed climate change for her state's troubles: “The evidence is compelling: record low snowpack, the warmest winter since 1895, and seven Oregon counties in states of drought emergency before the end of April — and I predict more on the way.”
In Washington, water deliveries have already been cut to farmers for weeks at a time in the state's most productive agricultural region, the Yakima Basin. As part of the declaration, the state Department of Ecology set up a water exchange to help farmers and other users buy and sell water.
Flanked by somber state officials and photos of snowpack in the Olympic mountains — thick and white in 2013, completely gone in 2015 — Inslee said the drought had spread quickly and threatened important sectors of the state economy, including agriculture, tourism and recreation.
“Difficult decisions are already being made about how to save our fish runs,” Inslee said. “In the Walla Walla region, water is being shifted from creek to creek to keep water flowing to steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. Fish are even being hauled to further upstream to cooler, more abundant water.”
And the state is bracing for more early-season fires, he said. Last summer, the Carlton complex fire in the state's center consumed more acreage than any fire in Washington history and destroyed at least 300 homes. The 2015 season could be worse.
“Forecasters are calling for a warm and dry summer,” said state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “This will only increase demands for water.... We are preparing for an intense wildfire season.”
Bellon said in an interview that there were two bright spots in Washington's drought picture. The first, she said, is that water supplies for residents in the Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Spokane areas would probably be sufficient.
“These areas have large reservoirs that are rain-fed,” Bellon said. “Our projections show that most households in Washington will have an adequate water supply.”
And hydroelectric power is expected to be untouched, at least in the short term. Most of the major hydroelectric dams and power projects are on the Columbia River, which is fed by snow from Canada, she said. And snowpack in Canada's ranges fared better than in Washington's mountains.
Mark Anderson, senior energy policy specialist with the Washington Department of Commerce, said electric power utilities plan their purchases for what's called critical water, as measured by how much flows over the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River between January and July each year.
The average flow during that period is 102 million acre-feet, Anderson said. Critical water is a flow of 52 million acre-feet, which was the record low flow in the last 80 years. So far, predictions call for 90.5 million acre-feet of water.
“This year, we're at 85% of normal compared to a critical year, which is 51% of normal,” Anderson said. “Since we plan our [power] generation and our contracts based on critical water we should be fine.... There should not be any lack of electricity supply this summer or this coming winter.”
But there could be an economic impact at some point, he said. Because 15% less water is expected to flow down the Columbia, less power will be generated, and prices could eventually rise in some utility districts and in California, which buys power from the Pacific Northwest during the peak summer season.
“We will be able to meet all our load here, and we will have some spare to sell down there,” Anderson said in an interview Friday. “I don't know what the California demand will be.... The more you need and the less we have, the higher the price goes.”