Washington:The dry facts are starting to soak in

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Wednesday, March 14, 2001, 12:42 a.m. Pacific

The dry facts are starting to soak in: We're experiencing a drought

by Craig Welch Seattle Times staff reporter A winter storm dumped nearly a foot of snow in parts of the Cascades last night, and several more storms are expected to march across the state over the next 10 days. But the Northwest is so parched that Gov. Gary Locke today plans to visit a mud-caked lakebed studded with tree stumps as a backdrop for his official declaration of drought in Washington.

This morning, Locke will visit Alder Lake, a popular recreation spot southeast of Olympia, and is expected to authorize the state Department of Ecology to make the declaration, a technical move that gives the state more flexibility in responding to the crisis.

The announcement would free the state from a few cumbersome rules and allow Ecology to obtain $5 million in emergency funds. The department would then be able to more quickly transfer water rights from those who have enough to those in need, be able to hire new staff to process water-use changes and set up a hotline for emergency drought information.

What the declaration wouldn't do, Locke spokeswoman Sandi Peck said, is "create any new water."

"It allows Ecology to take some actions that will help with some of the pain we'll suffer during the drought," she said. Still, "it's only March, and we're already in the worst dry spell since 1977."

And, as yesterday's storm system showed, even modest increases to the snowpack, at this point, are unlikely to offer much relief.

A cold front pushed gale-force winds along the Strait of Juan de Fuca and caused strong gusts along Hood Canal. Light snow from Paradise at Mount Rainier to Mount Baker was expected to turn heavy, and forecasters called for up to 10 inches of snow from Stevens Pass north.

Several other storm systems are expected over the next 10 days, bracketed by 50- and 60-degree days, "but it's not going to solve the drought problem," said Brad Colman, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Seattle.

"We're talking about maybe of an inch of liquid water," he said. "It's certainly something, but it's still many, many inches below normal."

The problem, said Dan Moore, a hydrologist in Portland with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, is that the region's snowpack - nature's water-storage system - now hovers at 50 to 60 percent of normal. But by April 1, that snow typically starts to melt and funnel into rivers, streams and aquifers.

That leaves just a few weeks for the snowpack to double - something that under normal conditions takes most of the winter.

"If we get a storm coming in this time of year," Moore said, "and people say it's above average, it's not going to be as much snow as if it were above average - or even average - in January.

"The later we go in the season, the less effect a storm will have. Even if we get 200 percent of average, the overall snowpack situation might be bumped up by 10 percent."

In the Willamette River Valley south of Portland, where the river is more dependent on rain, spring storms may still help. But in the Cedar and Baker river watersheds in Western Washington, a larger percentage of water comes from snow.

Still, any precipitation helps some, because it can at least be collected and stored in reservoirs.

Meanwhile, worries of a drought are already spreading.

Eight state Senate Republicans sent a letter on behalf of irrigators yesterday urging Locke to not "create another dust bowl."

The Columbia River is expected to fall below minimum flows this summer, which could prompt the state to cut water to as many as 200 agricultural users - something that's never been done before.

Meanwhile, in the Yakima basin, which produces 30 percent of the state's agricultural crop, a forecast last week showed that holders of so-called junior water rights could see water availability drop to 6 percent of normal.

"It's getting so bad, we just are happy with anything that comes," said Moore. "But at this point, we're not going to get something that will make us go, 'Well, the drought's over.' "

Craig Welch can be reached at 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 14, 2001

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