February 1, 2014 in Region

Washington’s low snowpack leads to drought concerns

Phuong Le Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – Officials monitoring lower-than-usual snowpack levels in Washington state say it’s not time to panic, but they’re nevertheless preparing in case of a possible drought.

The Department of Ecology plans to ask the Legislature for drought-relief money in case dry weather conditions persist into spring. And a committee of state and federal officials that monitors the state’s water supply is meeting next week to start preparing for the worst. The last time they met was 2010, when there were similar concerns about a possible drought.

“Nobody is blowing a whistle yet or raising a red flag. It’s more of a yellow flag,” said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mount Vernon. His office, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tracks snowpack levels using a network of weather stations throughout the state.

The state relies on mountain snowpack to supply water for drinking, irrigation, fish migration, power generation and other needs through the year.

Statewide, snowpack levels are about 50 percent less than average for this time of year, though basins vary, Pattee said. The Olympic peninsula basin is at 34 percent of normal, while the Lower Columbia basin is at 45 percent of normal, Pattee said.

About 93 percent of Washington state is in moderate drought conditions, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The winter has been drier than usual, with ski resorts opening later than usual. But experts say there’s still time to catch up.

“We could have a wet, snowy February and March and people will stop talking about this. It’s rare that it doesn’t turn around,” said Brent Bower, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. “That being said, it is very dry and the snowpack is low.”

The state declared drought emergencies in 2001 and 2005.

“It’s time to get prepared for dealing with a possible drought in the state,” said Dan Partridge, a Department of Ecology spokesman. “It’s not time to panic or anything like that.”

Partridge said it’s early in the season and “we have quite some time to catch up on snowpack. That, of course, would be our best hope.”

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