State drought may affect surrounding farmland and stream levels due to low snowpack

With current snowpack conditions at less than 50% their normal level at this time of year, Gov. Jay Inslee declared drought in nearly half of the state’s watersheds. // Graphic courtesy of Washington State Department of Ecology

By Cassidy Tamburro

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought in nearly half of Washington state watersheds on Monday, May 20, but officials say residents of Bellingham will not be affected.

Amy Cloud, director of communications and media outreach for the Bellingham Public Works Department, said the drought should not have a huge effect on Bellingham residents because Lake Whatcom, the city’s main water source, is not affected by low snowpack levels.

The city manages the level in the Lake Whatcom reservoir to meet water supply, recreation and habitat needs,” Cloud said. “Variations in seasonal rainfall and temperature are anticipated. The Lake Whatcom reservoir is currently trending within typical annual patterns.”

Washington climatologist Nick Bond said due to the relatively dry weather the state has had, soil moisture contents will be lower in this region. He said he’s confident there will be less water than normal coming down the Nooksack River this winter.

“In many parts of Washington, because the summer is dry and we technically have a Mediterranean climate, we have depended on snowpack to get us through the dry period,” Bond said.

Jeff Marti, the drought coordinator for the Washington State Department of Ecology, said snowpack acts like a frozen reservoir, but without having to build a dam. When snow falls in the winter it accumulates at higher elevations. As the weather warms, the snow melts and provides healthy stream flow in the summer. Therefore, low snowpack leads to less spring runoff due to the smaller reservoir, he said.

According to a Department of Ecology press release, the snowpack conditions are currently less than 50% of the average for this time of year. They are predicting drier weather will cause already decreasing snowpack to melt more quickly. This decreases water availability that will be needed for farms and fish during the summer. The rainfall totals for the state remain below normal, according to the press release.

Bond said the drought is more likely to affect agricultural interests over drinking water. From an agricultural point of view, there is less water to go around. According to Bond, students at Western should not worry about their drinking water running out.

Stream levels will also be impacted in the coming summer, with lower levels causing some problems for fish.

Bond said fish like cool, clear water and when stream flows are low the water temperature becomes warmer than the fish favor. High stream temperatures cause increases in the incidence of parasites and fungal diseases that can reduce populations and impede the ability of adults to reach their spawning beds.

According to the department’s press release, the water supplies in Everett, Seattle and Tacoma regional water system are in good shape. This included utility supplies and water for fish.

The 2019 state legislature has allocated $2 million for drought response allowing the ecology department to expect funding for public agencies to be available in early June, according to their press release.

The Department of Ecology also defines the two factors that go into consideration for an emergency drought declaration; water supply conditions currently or projected to be 75% below average and a projection of undue hardships. The last time the state declared an emergency drought was in 2015, according to the Department of Ecology press release.

Cloud suggested residents help preserve water during the dry summer months by following the voluntary outdoor watering schedule, which will lower the city’s daily average drinking water demand. The City of Bellingham water conservation pledge and more information regarding smart watering tips can be found here.

Bond said water conservation is a good practice since winters with lower snowpack levels are going to be happening more frequently.

“Realize that we are going to have to adapt to a changing climate,” Bond said. “It is real and we ignore it at our own peril.”

 

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