State appears to be headed for record-breaking dry summer
By Ann McCreary
The drought across Washington state is surpassing droughts in 2001 and 2005 and appears to be headed for the record books.
“Pretty much the consensus is that this is shaping up to be the worst drought in modern Washington state history,” said Dan Partridge of the state Department of Ecology’s water resources program.
The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies 99 percent of the state as being in a severe or extreme drought, Partridge said.
In the Methow Valley, the drought continues to impact local rivers and streams by reducing water levels and raising water temperatures. That prompted local fisheries managers to impose “hoot owl” restrictions last week, prohibiting fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight to reduce stress on fish already struggling with high water temperatures and low stream flows.
Across the state more than 40 rivers and streams have been closed to fishing — an unprecedented number, according to Ecology.
“We’re seeing pretty low river conditions just like everyone around the state. We’re seeing areas go dry much earlier than usual,” said Charlie Snow, a fish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in Twisp.
“The flow is like what we see a month from now at the nadir of the hydrograph,” Snow said. “The upper Twisp River around the Poplar Flats campground is disconnected. There are some pools with isolated fish that we may try to rescue.”
Returning spring Chinook salmon have just begun spawning in local rivers that are significantly lower and warmer than usual, Snow said.
“A lot of the areas where we usually see redds in are dewatered. The spawning distribution will be different this year. There will be more fish spawning in smaller areas and they will be more likely to superimpose on each other,” he said.
A female salmon creates redds — depressions made with her body and tail in the gravel at the bottom of rivers — where she lay eggs. With reduced spawning areas available, the eggs deposited by the earliest spawning fish may be dug up by fish that spawn later, reducing the survival rate of the fish.
Soon to return to Methow Valley rivers are summer Chinook salmon, which spawn in October. “We have a pretty good run coming back too. There will be a lot of redd superimposition,” Snow said.
With continued hot weather, water temperatures in local rivers have approached 70 degrees — the threshold considered to be dangerous for fish. However, cooler nights have helped decrease temperatures somewhat, Snow said.
Statewide, the drought is having significant impacts on the environment and people. According to Ecology, 80 streams and rivers are running below normal or at record low flows. The Methow River at Twisp measured 47 percent of normal early this week, and the Methow River at Pateros was at 45 percent of normal.
Ecology has curtailed water use for almost 500 irrigators across the state, including about 60 irrigators in the Methow Valley, to try to sustain streamflows.
The irrigators have water rights that can be restricted when streamflows drop below certain levels set by state law. Some have water rights dating back to the 1800s. The water users are required to call a hotline to find out if they can irrigate.
Impact on lakes
The drought appears to be impacting water quality in lakes throughout the state as well, causing increased algae blooms, including toxic blue-green algae blooms in some lakes.
“Were having a lot of blooms throughout the state,” said Sandy Howard with Ecology’s water quality program. “We feel the drought is contributing to the problem because there is less water and it’s warmer. We always have toxic algae blooms … this year the blooms are stronger and were pretty sure it’s linked to the drought,” she said.
“Our message is if you see some kind of green algae in the water you should not get in the water. Some of these algae blooms are toxic, especially if you happen to be a dog or small child,” Howard said.
A statewide freshwater algae monitoring program provides general information about algae blooms and a list of lakes with toxic algae at www.nwtoxicalgae.org.
Lizbeth Seebacher, a freshwater algae specialist with Ecology, said a sample of Patterson Lake water was analyzed Aug. 3 and showed no sign of toxic algae. No other lakes in the Methow Valley have been analyzed, she said.
On the west side of the Cascades, record-breaking warm water temperatures in the North Pacific Ocean are increasing harmful algae blooms, closing shellfish harvests and causing harmful conditions for salmon and other marine life in Puget Sound, according to Ecology.
The month of July was the warmest month recorded in Seattle dating back to 1890, according to the National Weather Service.
The state Legislature has authorized $16 million over the next two years for drought relief. The money will be used in part for a grant program administered by Ecology to fund projects by cities, utilities and irrigation districts to help protect public health and safety from the effects of the drought and to reduce economic and environmental impacts from water shortages.
The weather forecast for the region and the entire West Coast provides little hope for relief in the months ahead, Partridge said.
“The August forecast calls for more hot and dry weather in Washington and the long-term forecast is calling for a strong El Niño weather pattern to continue into next year,” he said. “If accurate, this will mean another low snowpack and another year of drought.”