Wash. drought declaration

Ice-covered Keechelus Lake near Washington's Snoqualmie Pass on March 19. It's one of five mountain reservoirs serving the Yakima Basin. Drought is now declared for the upper basin.

ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a drought emergency for the upper Yakima Basin and the Okanogan and Methow valleys based on forecasts of low summer streamflows.

The Okanogan River is forecast at 58% of normal streamflow for April through September, the Methow River at 72% of normal and the upper Yakima at 74%, according to state and federal projections.

The state threshold for drought is 75%. Several other streams in the Central Columbia have fallen below 75% and may be added to the declaration soon, said Scott Pattee, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service state water supply specialist in Mount Vernon.

“We must take steps to ensure that Washingtonians have the water they need to sustain their farms and livestock,” Inslee said in a news release that noted the agricultural significance of all three drought basins.

The declaration allows for expedited processing of water transfers between willing buyers and sellers or between irrigation districts in the Yakima Basin and possible government assistance in the Methow and Okanogan. It also helps fish managers better prioritize projects and resources, said Joye Redfield-Wilder, a state Department of Ecology  spokeswoman in Yakima.

Even though the forecast for April is warm and wet, the overall forecast for May and June is warm and dry, Pattee said.

“April will determine what kind of shape we’re in, whether we have enough precipitation to keep it from getting worse,” Pattee said. “The critical thing is some significant precipitation in the next few weeks and temperatures to remain normal.”

The upper Yakima region, including the Kittitas Valley, is home to large hay and cattle operations and increasing tree fruit.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is forecasting this summer’s water supply for junior water right holders in the Yakima Basin at 77% of normal. Basin snowpack is 75% of average and October through March precipitation in the basin is 88.6% of average.

Junior water right holders include the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD) in the greater Ellensburg area and the Roza Irrigation District in the lower Yakima Valley.

Urban Eberhart, KRD manager, said that with 77% of normal water supply the district will limit users to 4 acre-feet per acre for the season, down from 5 acre-feet. Water deliveries can start at a normal April 22, but will end by the third week of September, several weeks earlier than the usual Oct. 15, he said.

“People will make adjustments and prioritize fields but it should be survivable,” Eberhart said. “No one should have significant crop loss.”

The plan may change if the 77% forecast changes, he said.

The KRD is better off than it once was in water conservation because of $17 million spent to make the distribution system more efficient, he said.

The drought declaration underscores the need for more water reservoir storage in the Yakima Basin as called for in the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 12, Eberhart said.

Some 100 junior water right users on the Okanogan and Similkameen rivers will have to call a DOE hotline to know if they can irrigate when flows drop below minimums, Redfield-Wilder said. The same will be true for 62 water users in the Methow, she said. Those areas were last restricted in 2015 and 2016.

“We expect to issue orders earlier than normal in these watersheds due to current and projected water conditions,” she said. Snowpack in Canada that feeds the Okanogan River are well below normal.”

The Okanogan and Methow are in poor shape because they entered the fall with very dry soil, which means winter snow is being absorbed by the soil with less making it to streams and rivers, Pattee said.

DOE is requesting $2 million from the state Office of Financial Management for drought response programs. This could fund projects like installing emergency facilities, providing water leasing, and supporting operational changes to move water through tributaries and support salmon survival.

Pattee’s April through September percent of normal streamflow by basin forecast: Spokane, 70-78; Pend Oreille, 78-82; the upper Columbia (Okanogan and Methow rivers), 56-84; central Columbia (Chelan, Entiat and Wenatchee), 70-83; upper Yakima, 64-76; lower Yakima, 77-93; Walla Walla, 100-111; lower Snake River, 83-121; lower Columbia, 83-94; south Puget Sound (from Cascade crest to lowlands), 79-89; central Puget Sound, 75-79; north Puget Sound,79-82; the Olympics, 84-85.

Central Washington field reporter

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