It’s been nearly six weeks since Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency across Washington, and experts say conditions are getting worse.
In its most recent forecast, the U.S. Drought Monitor predicts abnormally dry conditions in the Columbia Basin, a moderate drought from the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains to southeastern Washington, and a severe drought across northeastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle.
“Big news: It’s dry,” said Guy Gregory, a senior hydrogeologist for the state Department of Ecology. “We’re experiencing the lowest snowpack on record since at least the 1940s.”
The Inland Northwest is only beginning to feel the effects of the historic drought, which is most severe in Central California and steadily encroaching on other Western states. Drought conditions are ranked “extreme” across southeastern Oregon and the southwestern corner of Idaho.
The drought poses significant threats across the West. Sweltering heat is expected to reach into the 100s this weekend in Spokane, further drying out the region’s vegetation and fueling an already early brush fire season.
More than 300 wildfires have been reported in Washington this year. On Friday, Inslee issued an emergency proclamation that gives the Washington Department of Natural Resources the ability to summon help from the National Guard and State Guard for fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of state land on short notice.
A ban on campfires at Washington state parks also was issued Friday, expanding an earlier ban on open burning in state forests. The ban will remain in effect until Sept. 30.
“The weather forecasts are pointing to a dangerous weekend, with an ominous fire-weather pattern that shows hot temperatures, low humidity and high potential for lightning and gusty winds,” Peter Goldmark, the state’s commissioner of public lands, said in a news release.
While winter precipitation in the Inland Northwest hovered around average levels, every month except November saw above-average temperatures. That resulted in more rain, less snow and faster snowmelt across the region, causing most observation sites to lose their snowpack four to eight weeks earlier than normal.
Many reported their earliest loss of snowpack on record, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is compiled by federal agencies and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
Now that the snowpack is gone, 43 percent of Washington’s rivers are running at record-low levels. That’s bad news for about 380 irrigators on the Wenatchee, Okanogan, Similkameen, Methow, Colville and Little Spokane rivers who are being told by the Department of Ecology to curtail their water use.
Some junior water right holders, whose permits to irrigate can be restricted when stream flows drop below certain levels, must now call a hotline to find out if they can water their fields on a given day. During normal years, those water users don’t typically face restrictions until August or September.
Junior right holders on the Colville River may face restrictions for the first time this summer. The river is flowing at 28 percent of normal.
“These are really hard times for farms and fish, and many people in the state,” Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a news release. “We’re working hard to provide support and relief across the state to communities and irrigation districts. We’ve asked the Legislature for emergency funding so we can continue our work.”
Since June 15, some 40-plus users on the Wenatchee River have been required to stop watering unless stream flows improve. Another 80 users in the Okanogan and Similkameen river watershed stopped watering this week.
Irrigators on the Methow, Colville and Little Spokane rivers will be asked to call a hotline beginning next week.
The restrictions will affect about 60 junior water right holders on the Colville River and 120 on the Little Spokane River, Gregory said. Irrigated pasture and hay fields are two of the primary crops that will be affected.
On Friday, city officials began urging Spokane residents to curtail their water use, especially for lawns and landscaping, which accounts for about 30 percent of water use nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Heavy pumping from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer depletes flows in the Spokane River. The city’s recommendations are as follows:
• Use sprinklers in the morning to prevent water from evaporating in the heat of day or sitting on the roots of a lawn overnight, causing problems like root rot and fungal disease.
• Water lawns every other day, rather than every day, to encourage roots to grow deeper and draw water from the soil more effectively.
• Don’t let the hose run while washing a car or watering a lawn; use a nozzle or shut off the faucet until water is needed.
• Don’t water on windy days, and turn off sprinklers when it rains.
Other recommendations include growing plants that are native to the region and leaving lawn clippings on lawns to act as a natural mulch. The city says mower blades should allow grass at least 3 inches high to hinder weeds and water evaporation.
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