Washington facing drought crisis

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SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/local/drought17.shtml

State facing drought crisis Panel to address water shortage; emergency could be declared

Saturday, February 17, 2001


OLYMPIA -- Facing water levels at near-historic lows, Washington officials took a major step toward declaring a drought emergency this week.

For the first time in nearly a decade, officials have convened an emergency drought committee to address the statewide water shortage.

Water supply experts met with members of the Executive Water Emergency Committee earlier this week and plan to meet again during the last week of February.

Assembling the emergency committee lays the groundwork for declaring a formal drought emergency, which Gov. Gary Locke may authorize the state Ecology Department to do as early as next month.

"The numbers are not good at all," said Dana Middleton, Locke's spokeswoman. "And some people are saying it could be the worst drought in living memory."

During the first week of March, the federal Bureau of Reclamation plans to release information on how much water is left in Central Washington reservoirs. Sometime after that, Locke likely make a decision.

"That will probably be the day of reckoning," Middleton said.

Under the state emergency management plan, the emergency committee must convene whenever climate figures indicate a drought.

"We're in probably one of the lowest water years for this time (of year) since records have been kept," said Bob Nichols, natural resource adviser to Locke and chairman of the emergency committee. "All of the figures are saying pretty much the same things: we're about half what we should be."

The state is authorized to declare a drought emergency when water levels dip below 75 percent of average and when that shortage causes the state undue harm, such as to energy supplies, the economy, fish stocks, public water supplies and forest fire danger. A drought could be declared statewide, or just in specific regions, as was done during Washington's 1992 shortage.

Water figures gathered by the Ecology Department indicate Washington has fallen well below the 75 percent threshold. For example:

Precipitation is at or near record lows. Since Oct. 1, precipitation has measured 51 percent to 64 percent of normal in Western Washington and 45 percent to 84 percent of normal in Eastern Washington.

Washington gets much of its water for summer from the snowpack, which is at the lowest level since 1977. Statewide, the snowpack has been between 50 percent and 60 percent of normal. That includes the Columbia Basin snowpack, which powers 45 percent of the region's energy supply and is running at a near-historic low of about 50 percent of normal.

Seven reservoir systems tested, including several in the Yakima region are running at 30 percent of normal usable rates.

Many streams have been running at 10 percent to 24 percent of average recently. Ninety percent of stream-gauging stations have reporting flows in the 25th percentile or lower. Declaring a drought would allow officials to fund projects to mitigate the shortage. In addition, Ecology could approve emergency water permits and well use. But, unlike during the 1992 shortage, there isn't much water in the ground, anyway, officials say.

That was the last time the committee met to discuss statewide conditions, said Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the state Ecology Department. It met again briefly five years ago to discuss a regional shortage, she said.

In addition to the governor's office and Ecology, the emergency committee members includes officials from the state departments overseeing agriculture, energy, health, natural resources, agriculture, trade and economic development. Other members include the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration.

Of course, there is still time for the snowpack to recover, which is critical to avoiding a major drought. But it would require an enormous amount of snowfall by in the next several weeks.

"You can get bailed out," said Chris Lynch, chief hydrologist at the Yakima field office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. "But the later you go... your chances of a real good event diminish greatly."

P-I reporter Angela Galloway can be reached at 360-943-3990 or angelagalloway@seattle-pi.com.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 17, 2001

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