Farmers to fires to fish: Washington Drought effects to be felt : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Fair use for educational/research purposes only

Friday, March 16, 2001, 12:33 p.m. Pacific

Farmers to fires to fish: Drought effects to be felt

OLYMPIA - Low water levels in the Pacific Northwest could run public drinking-water systems dry, cause power outages, put farmers out of business, spark wildfires, and kill endangered and threatened fish, experts told state lawmakers yesterday.

"It's an extremely serious drought with severe economic consequences, and it affects every one of us," said Karen Fraser, D-Lacey, chairwoman of the state Senate Environment, Energy and Water Committee. Three legislative committees convened yesterday for a joint hearing on the drought.

Among the concerns:

Falling water tables, coupled with high summertime water use, will make many water systems across the state vulnerable to the drought, even to the point of running dry, according to state Department of Health officials.

At particular risk are shallow wells that depend on rapid, local aquifer recharge from rainfall or stream flows. Supplies could run low or even dry on Vashon, Whidbey and Camano islands, and in the San Juans, because aquifer water systems there are dependent on local rainfall.

Also at risk are isolated, coastal water systems such as the drier, eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula. Shallow wells and springs in those systems depend on local rainfall.

Regional surface-water systems, with many shallow wells that depend on high water tables, such as in the Quincy Basin, the Pasco Basin and the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer are also of particular concern.

Shallow wells and springs located throughout the Puget Lowland Glacial Aquifer System - which includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, Kitsap, King, Pierce, Mason and Thurston counties - are also vulnerable when water levels drop.

Those water systems also tend to be on porous soils, which means rainfall makes its way quickly to the aquifer.

If a community runs out of water, supplies can be trucked in, deeper wells can be drilled, or interties to other systems constructed. Emergency supplies can also be tapped.

The effects of the drought are already being felt. Residents on the Alder Lake water system in Pierce County ran out of drinking water the week of Dec. 12 when the lake dropped below shallow wells that supply 22 homes.

Operators of the water system trucked in water to fill an emergency supply tank while one of the wells was deepened.

Federal fish managers will have to decide whether to forgo spilling water over dams to protect salmon or send the water through turbines to generate power.

The spill program is estimated to cost more than $1 billion this year, the high cost a reflection of the price of power during the water and energy shortage.

Officials said the spill program probably will be curtailed if not eliminated this year.

Eliminating it would result in 40 fewer adult spring-chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River from the juvenile fish that migrate - as opposed to being barged - out to sea in the river this year, said John Fazio of the Northwest Power Planning Council.

Managers may also cut back on augmentation of Columbia and Snake River flows to help fish later in the summer. Drafting the reservoirs in a drought could leave reservoirs low next year, doubling the likelihood of power shortages next year, Fazio said.

If managers choose to send water through the turbines instead of spilling it, the surplus power may be traded to California this summer in return for a two-for-one trade to the Northwest next winter, Fazio said.

The drought will hurt fish just as the region is expected to see record returns of salmon to rivers and tributaries.

Water temperatures will be lethally high because of low flows and some streams will go dry.

"Some local populations of fish may even disappear," said Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The region should brace for a busy and potentially disastrous wildfire season.

"We know the trees are dry; we know they are going to burn," said Peter Heide of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a lobbying group for the timber industry.

"About the only thing we can do is prevent ignition and keep fires small once they start."

Lynda Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or

-- Martin Thompson (, March 16, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ