The Methow watershed is officially under a drought emergency. Okanogan County is one of 12 counties across the state hit with a drought declaration by the Washington Department of Ecology on Monday (July 24). The Okanogan watershed is also in a drought emergency.
Ecology declares a drought when there is less than 75% of normal water supply and the corresponding risk of undue hardship to irrigators, households and businesses. The rest of the state is under a drought advisory, a warning to water users to be extra-careful with water because supplies are so low.
While the drought declaration puts people on notice that water supplies are already perilously low, it doesn’t restrict water usage or impose mandatory conservation measures.
The main effect of the declaration is to allow Ecology to process emergency water-right permits and transfers for irrigators. It also taps into new state legislation that allocated $3 million in emergency grants to support communities, irrigation districts, tribes and other public entities facing hardships because of the drought.
Water withdrawals by 54 junior water-right holders — primarily irrigators — in the Methow watershed have been curtailed since late June. Although curtailment is common because senior-water-right holders get priority, the shut-off occurred much earlier this year than normal, Ecology Water Resources Planner Jeff Marti said. The drought declaration could help those junior irrigators apply for emergency water rights, Okanogan Conservation District Irrigation Planner Jordana Ellis said.
The drought emergency has been anticipated, since May and June of this year ranked as the fourth-warmest and 11th-driest since 1895. That early-season warmth melted the snowpack — still healthy in April — that the Methow and Okanogan watersheds rely on to fill rivers and streams throughout summer and fall.
In June, Washington received only 49% of its usual rainfall. The early runoff of the snowpack and the dry weather deprived soil of a final shot of moisture before summer heat, Ecology Communications Manager Jimmy Norris said. Current forecasts show a high likelihood of warm, dry weather through October.
The drought affects counties in eastern and western Washington. Some communities in the Skagit watershed and on the Olympic Peninsula have already been trucking water to residential users, Norris said.
In the Walla Walla Basin, parts of the watershed have gone completely dry. The Washington State Conservation Commission has reported crop losses, Norris said.
Help with hardships
With the drought declaration, the Okanogan Conservation District will evaluate needs to figure out how to best serve people across the county, Ellis said.
The district works with people on a voluntary basis. If water-users report hardships they’re experiencing because of the drought, the district can help apply for grants, Ellis said. Hardships include economic impacts from not having enough water, such as a well that ran dry, a crop that’s suffering because the grower had to cut back on watering, or fish that are struggling because water is too warm and flows are too low, she said.
The conservation district focuses primarily on agriculture, but it can help the county and city governments apply for financing if they suffer hardships from the drought, Ellis said.
The new legislation allows people to apply for grants even outside the drought-declaration period, so money could be used for long-term goals such as water storage or water-conserving irrigation systems, Ellis said.
More frequent droughts
Drought emergencies are likely to be a regular part of the future. “Climate change is making warm, dry summers more frequent, and droughts more severe,” Ecology Water Resources Program Manager Ria Berns said.
With these effects of climate change in mind, the Methow Watershed Council (MWC) is working on a project to understand how people are affected by water scarcity so mitigations can be proposed before the next drought, MWC chair Jean Bodeau said.
“Every time there’s a drought declaration, people scramble to put ideas together to apply for money. We’re trying to be more proactive,” Bodeau said.
While the current drought declaration provides resources for people affected by this drought — for example, to get an emergency temporary water right or a grant to truck water to a cistern — it’s too late to put mitigations in place this year, Bodeau said.
MWC envisions a detailed map that would show how drought affects users in different parts of the valley — covering rivers and small streams — under various low-flow scenarios, Bodeau said. This information would help develop voluntary conservation measures for individuals, property owners, towns and irrigators so they can lessen the impact of drought, she said.
Bills have been introduced in the Legislature that would provide funding for this type of drought planning, and Bodeau hopes that money could be available in a year or so. In the meantime, MWC is refining its drought-response project and will look for a funding source once they have a project outline.
People can submit reports and photos of drought impacts to the Condition Monitoring Observer Reports system, a nationwide service provided by the National Drought Mitigation Center, developed in partnership with the National Integrated Drought Information System and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Reports can help specialists determine drought conditions and interpret complex weather data.