The streamflow forecast for the Methow River has dropped to 73 percent of normal for April through September, which could qualify the Methow River watershed for a drought designation.
State law allows the Department of Ecology to declare a drought when an area is experiencing, or projected to experience, a water supply that is below 75 percent of normal, and water users within those areas will likely incur “undue hardships” as a result of the shortage.
The Methow River basin has been on a “watch list” for falling below the 75 percent threshold, and this month joined many other areas of the state that may face water shortages this summer, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Pattee sits on a state Water Supply Availability Committee, a multi-agency group that evaluates water supplies and potential drought conditions.
At a meeting on Tuesday (April 7), the committee moved the Methow and many other watersheds to a “below 75 percent of normal” list, Pattee said.
That means the Methow and other watersheds are likely to be added to areas that were declared a drought emergency last month “unless conditions turn around, and the forecast doesn’t support that,” Pattee said.
The dismal streamflow forecast is a result of record-breaking low mountain snowpack. Pattee said 74 percent of the snow monitoring sites in the state have set new record low snow amounts.
“Many of them are reporting in with zero snow for the first time in their history,” Pattee said in a monthly water supply update. “As expected, streamflow forecasts have also tanked in many areas and are also setting new record low flows,” he said.
“Over the past three weeks, snowpack has dropped to about 20 percent of normal statewide,” said Dan Partridge, communications manager for Ecology’s Water Resources Program.
The previous record low snowpack readings were 33 percent statewide in 2005, Pattee said.
“In a normal year, late March and early April are typically when we reach the peak of our snowpack, not scraping the bottom of the barrel. We are so far behind that we need a whopping 5,000 percent of average snowfall in April to recover from our record shortfall,” Partridge said in a blog on the Ecology website.
The snowpack for the Methow River basin continues to lead the state, as it has all winter, at 79 percent of normal. A localized snowstorm that deposited a significant amount of snow in early winter in the Hart’s Pass area is the principal reason for the snowpack reading.
Snowpack essentially acts as a frozen reservoir that feeds rivers and streams in spring and summer, and supplies water for fish and agricultural and residential use.
Washington saw record warm average temperatures from October through February. Precipitation has been near normal or even above normal for the water year, which runs October to September, Pattee said. That is largely because of a rainy fall, and the fact that precipitation fell in the form of rain instead of much-needed snow in the mountains.
In the upper Columbia basin, which includes the Methow Valley, precipitation was 101 percent of average. But with river levels falling and little snow to feed them, the precipitation readings do little to change the bleak water supply forecast, Pattee said.
As much as a foot of snow fell in the Cascades last week, but that did little to stave off the impending drought, Partridge said.
“While public water districts so far are not anticipating problems with municipal supplies, it’s going to be a thirsty year for crops and fish,” he said.
In mid-March Gov. Jay Inslee declared drought emergencies in the Olympic Peninsula, the east side of the central Cascades, including Yakima and Wenatchee, and the Walla Walla basin.
Drought declarations qualify water users for emergency assistance, opening the door to money and technical assistance from Ecology for leasing water rights, drilling new wells, deepening existing wells, laying pipes and installing pumps to move water from one location to another, Partridge said.
Ecology has asked the Legislature for $9 million in emergency funding. The department is also working with farmers in the Yakima Basin, the state’s richest agricultural region, to provide information on how farmers can get paid for forgoing their senior water diversions and not planting a crop during the 2015 irrigation season, Partridge said.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced in March that holders of senior water rights in the Yakima Basin would get their full allocation of irrigation water, but “junior” water rights holders would receive only 73 percent of their water, and a further drop in junior water supplies may be announced.