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It's Almost Officially a Drought

by Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Seattle Times - March 9, 2001

Gov. Gary Locke is expected to officially declare a statewide drought next week, as the lack of normal rain and snow in the region continues.

Snowpack, precipitation and reservoir levels are below or at the lowest levels since 1977. And short-term weather forecasts predict little relief. If dry conditions continue, it could be more serious than the '77 dry spell, for several reasons.

A water shortage is a power shortage in a state like Washington, which gets 78 percent of its electricity from hydropower. And water is so low that the federal Bonneville Power Administration now says rolling blackouts are possible in the Northwest. Those blackouts could come, the BPA says, if the region doesn't cut back on its plan to spill water over dams to protect salmon.

Earlier this year, the BPA thought the region would be able to meet all its power-supply needs, albeit with difficulty. But not anymore. "Things are changing, and not in the right direction," said agency spokesman Mike Hansen.

Farmers are also pushed to the wall. Already hurt by low commodity prices and rising energy and fertilizer costs, a drought could push growers to give up on an unprecedented 26,000 of the state's 172,000 apple-bearing acres, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

In addition to harming growers of the state's top crop, the drought could also hurt growers of other high-value irrigated crops - cherries, pears, hops and grapes.

"This is going to be a major catastrophe for agriculture at the rate we are going," said Linda Crerar, a policy analyst for the department.

Growers will also have to compete for water with steelhead, chinook and bull trout listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, a problem they didn't face in the last serious drought.

The orchard industry is the biggest single user of irrigation water. In Eastern Washington, 91 percent of the water used goes to irrigation; statewide, it's 75 percent.

And there are more orchards to water every year. In 1997, there were 1.7 million acres of irrigated cropland in cultivation, compared to 1.3 million acres in 1974, according to the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service.

In Seattle, residents and businesses have been advised by Seattle Public Utilities to conserve now to help avoid restrictions later in the summer.

But demand for water in Seattle will be less this year than in the 1977 drought: Successful conservation measures have held water use below what it was in the late 1970s despite population growth.

During the last drought, the state was able to help out by granting emergency water rights to users so they could access new water sources. That is very unlikely this time, said Mary Getchell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology.

"There just isn't any more water out there," she said.

A drought declaration would free up $5 million in state money for emergency assistance and allow water users to more quickly and easily transfer water rights.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation has already notified half the farmers in the Yakima Irrigation Project that they may receive little or no water during parts of the coming irrigation season, which begins April 1.

The project provides water from the Yakima River to 464,000 acres of farmland in Yakima, Kittitas and Benton counties.

Water-watchers are seeing the lowest flows in the Yakima River since the 1930s.

Some irrigators in the Yakima basin have been warned they will get only 38 percent of their usual allotment of water this season, and if the weather remains dry, just 6 percent.

The holders of so-called junior water rights will have to turn off their irrigation ditches in a shortage to allow more senior water-rights holders to obtain their full allotments.

"You are going to see growers who aren't getting financing. People going bankrupt and not getting any water at all," said Tom Monroe of the Roza Irrigation District south of Yakima. All irrigators in the Roza district hold junior rights. Some could go weeks without water.

The district intends to spend $2 million this season leasing water rights from willing sellers to help farmers through the drought.

Growers of lower-value crops such as carrots and peas may decide the best business decision for them is not planting at all and leasing their water rights to neighbors.

The state may also spend some drought-assistance money to buy and lease water rights to keep water in rivers to generate power and help salmon survive.

To help farmers, the BPA offered a program this season under which it would pay them not to farm. That would take some demand for power off the grid and leave more water in the river for fish.

But the program offers too little too late for many irrigators to take the BPA up on it, according to John Saven of Northwest Irrigation Utilities, which represents utilities that serve large irrigators.

Despite those and other efforts, though, salmon are sure to take a hit in the drought.

Federal fish managers will have to decide how to protect fish in the coming migration season with so little water to help.

"When you get down to rolling blackouts and you have human-safety concerns, (taking care of that) may be more important than full implementation of salmon recovery," Hansen said.

Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
It's Almost Officially a Drought
Seattle Times Company, March 9, 2001

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