Time to look toward potential water shortage

State officials have taken one look at the snowpack in the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges and concluded that Washington could be in for a water shortage this year.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and state budget writers are smart to transfer $4.1 million into a drought relief fund to combat the possible ramifications of the below-average snowpack.

Standing before reporters in her conference room last week, Gregoire pointed to a map that showed snowpack levels across the state. Only the Olympic peninsula region was shown in green with 101 percent of average snowpack.

More importantly, the regions along the Cascade mountains and their foothills ranged from 50 percent in central Puget Sound to 66 percent in the north Puget Sound region. Eastern Washington was in better shape with 80 percent in the upper Columbia, 77 percent in Central Columbia and 82 percent in the lower Yakima region.

Gregoire and her advisers were quick to note, however, that the current situation does not appear to be as severe as 2005 when precipitation was at or near record lows across Washington and mountain snowpack averages were 26 percent of normal. That year, Gregoire declared a drought emergency in March and the state spent about $8 million in drought relief.

This year, the governor asked for $4.1 million to be put into the emergency account. The money would be spent to deepen wells or to lease water from senior water right holders. The money can only be used if the governor declares a drought emergency in a region, and Gregoire can declare an emergency only if an area is getting, or projected to receive, less than 75 percent of normal water supply and water users are believed to likely suffer hardship.

“We do not have the resources necessary should this drought continue out,” Gregoire told reporters.

Snowpack levels are pivotal because they feed rivers and streams, provide freshwater supplies for cities and towns and irrigation water for farms. Fish and other wildlife depend on healthy stream flows and farmers need predictable irrigation water for their crops.

Most rural residents rely on wells tapped into aquifers for their drinking water. And 70 percent to 80 percent of Washington’s surface water supplies come from mountain snowmelt in the summer.

Gregoire said she talked to Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, and they were receptive to her request to transfer money from a disaster response fund to the drought relief account, which was depleted during last year’s budget cuts.

Even with the money transfer, Gregoire noted that even though the snowpack levels have not dropped to 2005 levels, the lack of snow this year, which was evident to the world in the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., is nonetheless troubling. It’s imperative that the state make preparations now to respond to a potential drought, Gregoire said.

She’s right.

Dan Newhouse, a former legislator and director of the state Department of Agriculture, said farmers risk losing millions in crops during a drought. In the Yakima River basin area during the 2005 drought, agricultural production loss was almost $250 million, and that in total it was a nearly $1 billion impact to the state, he said.

“Any kind of investments we can make to avoid those kinds of impacts is very, very prudent,” Newhouse said.

Gregoire said that because of El Niño, the state is likely to see a dry spring and a hot summer, which increases the concern about water shortages.

El Niño is a periodic warming of the water in the tropical Pacific Ocean accompanied by changes in air pressure and winds that can influence weather worldwide.

The governor also was right when she said a key, long-term solution is for the state to expand its reservoir capacity so that more water can be stored, then used in dry years.

It also would be prudent for state lawmakers to realize that droughts and flooding have become commonplace, and that the wide swings of weather patterns are likely to extend into the future.

The lesson here is to put sufficient funds into these disaster accounts during flush budget years to get the state through in lean budget times like the one we’re experiencing today.