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Upper Quinault Basin - Low winter snow levels affect summer water levels

Ecology drought response committee continues to monitor water supplies in Washington

As lead agency for drought response in Washington State, the Department of Ecology will convene the state Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC) again in mid-August.  The committee of state and federal agencies monitors snowpack and water supply conditions and advises the Governor on the need for a drought declaration when dry conditions persist.  The August meeting of the committee will be its fourth in 2014.

WSAC members shared information during their May 16, 2014, showing drought conditions (under state definitions) not present or expected in most of Washington.  However with the meeting in August, the committee will consider possibilities for drought this fall or in the spring of 2015 due to:

  • Computer models showing a warmer-than-usual summer increasing the water demand for crops.
  • The state Climatologist’s office estimating the probability of an “El Nino”  developing off of Washington’s coast at 65 percent. This could mean warmer, drier weather this fall and warmer, wetter weather in the form of rain, not snow, in the spring of 2015.

Snowpack, stream flows, precipitation healthy in May

Water supply conditions reviewed by WSAC in its May 16th meeting showed:

  • Snowpack statewide was 100 percent of average with only the Dungeness watershed on the Olympic Peninsula lagging slightly behind at 83 percent.
  • The May 16 flow forecast showed the Columbia River at 108 percent (more than 93.7 million acre-feet during April –September) of normal water supply, significantly above the Washington statutory drought trigger of 60 million acre-feet.
  • Higher- than-normal precipitation was recorded statewide in March with normal precipitation in April.

Federal drought declarations in Eastern Washington

On May 14, 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notified Gov. Jay Inslee that the federal agency was declaring drought in Benton and Franklin counties and designating   Adams, Columbia, Grant, Klickitat, Walla Walla, Whitman and Yakima counties as contiguous disaster counties.

The USDA measures drought in a different way than Washington state, for example federal criteria include factors such as soil moisture that WASC does not consider when recommending the governor declare a drought emergency.

The federal declarations are important to dryland farmers in designated areas because they may qualify for low interest emergency loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The process of a drought declaration

Under state law Ecology may declare a drought emergency if it determines that all or part of a geographical area is suffering from drought conditions.  This is done with the written approval of the Governor, acting under the advice of the Water Supply Availability Committee and the state Executive Water Emergency Committee.  The geographical area designated for drought funding must be specified.

Unlike most states, Washington has a statutory definition of drought.  It requires that two conditions be met and it differs from the drought rating scale applied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The two conditions are:

  • An area has to be experiencing or projected to experience a water supply that is below 75 percent of normal, and
  • Water users within those areas will likely incur undue hardships as a result of the shortage.

Once Ecology declares a drought at the direction of the Governor, Ecology can provide drought relief in the form of loans and grants for uses such as:

  • Drilling emergency wells or deepening existing wells for cities, farms and fish hatcheries.
  • Leasing water rights for stream flows.
  • Construction of pumps, pipelines and measuring devices that provide immediate drought relief.

Drought and water supply information

You can find additional drought and water supply information at the following links:

 

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Drought Insurance Program (DIP) "The legislature tasked OCR with reducing drought risk for interruptible water users"

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