Wa: This summer could be one of driest ever

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Wednesday, February 21, 2001, 08:10 a.m. Pacific

This summer could be one of driest ever

by Craig Welch and Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times staff reporters Gov. Gary Locke has not declared a drought, but state and federal officials are preparing for what some predict could be among the Northwest's driest summers ever.

Farmers may sell their power rather than plant crops. Dry conditions could raise wildfire threats, affecting recreation and taxing state emergency crews. Low river flows might boost the need for alternative fish passage around Columbia River dam systems.

At every turn, it seems, statistics spell trouble.

To date, precipitation, even on the wet western side of the state, is barely half of normal. In Eastern Washington, precipitation is below half of normal in some areas. Reservoir systems are 30 percent of normal. Stream flows in all but about a dozen of 103 locations monitored are 25 percent of normal.

Doug McChesney with the state Department of Ecology's water-resources program said yesterday that to change the tide, Washington would need 150 percent of normal precipitation until July. Even then, the type of moisture matters. A warm rain could potentially worsen conditions, loosening snow and quickening runoff.

"In large part, everything depends on how the snowpack melts," McChesney said yesterday. "Days like these, as beautiful as they are, are not good."

McChesney said it would take 10 to 15 storms like the one Thursday and Friday that dumped up to a foot of snow to turn conditions around.

"Last Friday sure seemed dramatic, but it was barely a blip on the screen," he said.

During a legislative hearing last week, Jim Waldo, the governor's lobbyist on water issues, made a dire prediction to members of a House committee.

"We are looking at a drought that will probably be as bad or worse as the drought of 1977, which was the worst drought on record," Waldo said.

An emergency committee in coming weeks will gather water statistics, make projections on potential economic impacts and likely recommend that Locke declare a drought. The declaration would allow for faster water transfers and free up about $5 million for drought preparedness.

But the declaration also is symbolic, giving the public a clear sign that conservation is vital.

"I think people should be conscious that this is happening," said Locke's spokeswoman, Dana Middleton. "It may be time to fix that leaky faucet."

Yesterday, Bob Nichols, a policy adviser to Locke, said the situation this year is better and worse.

"In many ways we're better prepared now to react to droughts," he said. "We have better forecasting information, so farmers can make decisions. We've got some tools in place to enable transfers of water."

But farmers, hurt by four years of poor prices, now face higher power costs to pump irrigation water. The price of some fertilizers, especially nitrogen, is being pushed up by higher energy costs, which make the chemicals much more expensive to make.

The Bonneville Power Administration is launching a program for at least this season, and perhaps next, under which it would pay farmers not to plant but to sell their power back to the BPA. To cash-starved farmers that could be a better business decision than planting this year.

But the BPA program, which is still being worked out, will come too late for many farmers who must decide soon whether to plant their ground; many had already prepared the soil for the coming year.

And every action affects another.

"If people are not planting a lot of labor-intensive crops, then the field workers may suddenly be unemployed," McChesney said. "If there's fire potential, there may be logging scale-backs. There could be impacts even on things like river rafting. How will these likely play out? We don't know."

Meanwhile, Nichols said, because up to 40 percent of the water storage for the Columbia River system comes from Canada - where snowpack is as bad or worse than in Washington and Oregon - plummeting river flows could hit historic lows.

Meanwhile Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray convened a closed-door meeting yesterday with conservation, utility and government energy experts to discuss the region's energy crisis.

She renewed the call for a short-term cap on wholesale electricity rates, which has been rejected by the Bush administration.

Murray also said energy conservation is the only fix, in the short-term, for the regional energy shortage. She urged residents to turn off lights, turn down thermostats and run major appliances after 9 p.m.

In the long term, new sources of power will be needed, Murray said.

Republican lawmakers in Olympia sent a letter to Locke yesterday asking him to approve a new power plant in Sumas despite a unanimous recommendation Friday against the plant by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Developers for the project have requested a reconsideration of the council's decision.

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 21, 2001

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