Rivers running well below normal levels
The Methow River is considerably below normal for this time of year, flowing below the 10th percentile. Andrews Creek, near Mazama, is at an all-time low for this date.
Rivers and streams across the state are running especially low as Washington experiences its driest conditions in almost 130 years, prompting the Washington Department of Ecology to issue a drought advisory for the entire state on July 5.
Water officials expect a drought declaration in some areas after a state committee meets this week to evaluate conditions, Ecology Water Resources Planner Jeff Marti said. Some state water officials think the Methow watershed could be on the list, Methow Watershed Council Administrator Sarah Lane said.
A drought advisory is essentially a warning to water users — households, municipalities, irrigators — to be extra-careful with water because supplies are so low. An official drought declaration doesn’t impose restrictions, but it can allow irrigators to apply for emergency water-right transfers and relief funding, Marti said.
River and stream flows have been running low since the end of May, despite a late-season boost to the mountain snowpack in April. Washington experienced its warmest May since 1895, which rapidly melted the snowpack, Marti said.
Although temperatures moderated in June, the 60-day period for May and June was still the fourth-warmest statewide since 1895, and the 11th-driest since that year, Marti said. Precipitation in Winthrop has been just 55% of normal for the past 60 days.
The drought declaration serves as a heads-up. People who rely on a well that has historically run dry should take precautions. Municipal water systems may ask people to conserve water, Marti said.
This is only the second time there’s been a statewide drought advisory, but Ecology has only had the authority to issue these advisories since 2020. Last year, Ecology issued an advisory in May, but withdrew it after the wet, cool spring alleviated concerns, Marti said.
A drought emergency means water supply is projected to be below 75% of average, posing a risk of undue hardship to water users. The most recent drought emergencies were declared in 2015, 2019, and 2021, according to Ecology.
Methow irrigators cut off
Runoff in the Methow River for the rest of the summer is expected to be very low, according to Ecology Central Region Communications Manager Emily Tasaka.
In fact, water withdrawals by 54 junior water-right holders — primarily irrigators — in the Methow watershed were curtailed as of June 20. Although curtailment is common because senior-water-right holders get priority, the shut-off occurred much earlier this year than normal. It’s more typical for it to happen in August or September, Marti said.
The curtailment means those with junior water rights have to call a hotline before they can use any water. If river flows rise above the instream-flow threshold, the hotline will let people know they can divert water on those days. But it typically takes multiple rains to rehydrate watersheds in late summer and early fall, since a single rainfall is rarely enough to bring a river up to normal levels and maintain them, Tasaka said.
Still, rain will benefit fish, because it can lower water temperatures and provide some additional streamflow, Tasaka said.
Watershed Council project
The Methow Watershed Council is developing a project that would look at the impacts of drought on a wide range of sectors in the valley in addition to irrigators, including businesses, recreation and residents, Lane said.
Although the project is still in the early stages, the watershed council hopes it will help build an understanding of the bigger picture of drought planning in the valley, she said.
The overall goals would be to increase community understanding and awareness of local consequences of severe drought, identify ways to increase resilience and decrease vulnerability, and develop mitigation response plans in the event of a declared drought emergency.
At present, most of the state’s official drought response is connected with irrigators — such as the program that allows them to apply for emergency water rights — but drought affects all sectors of society, Lane said.
The watershed council hopes the research can provide input to Ecology about ways to address drought. The information could also help create resources for valley residents and businesses to plan for low-water years through conservation and assistance programs, Lane said.
West side conditions
Eastern Washington is typically dry, but this year, it’s traditionally wetter areas west of the Cascades where conditions are extreme.
A small water system in Clallam County on the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula is already trucking water to about 30 residences. The Makah Tribe on Neah Bay on the northwest tip of the peninsula — typically one of the wettest areas in the state — has been under mandatory water restrictions since mid-May, Marti said. “The Olympic Peninsula is getting hammered — it’s hard to wrap your head around,” he said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, which bases its ratings on what’s normal for each watershed, classifies Okanogan County (and much of central and eastern Washington) as “abnormally dry,” the least severe on its five-tier drought scale (which tops out at “exceptional drought”). Western Washington and much of the Cascades are already considered in “moderate drought,” the second tier of the scale, along with the northeastern and southeastern corners of the state. No areas in Washington are yet considered to be in severe drought.
Although climate models suggest the summer will be warmer than normal, it’s not expected to reach the extremes of 2021, when an unprecedented heat dome shattered temperature records across the state, Ecology said.
The state’s Executive Water Emergency Committee is meeting on Wednesday (July 18) to review drought conditions, and will make a recommendation to the governor and Ecology. If that happens, Ecology would issue the declaration on July 24.