A warm winter has kept snow from accumulating in the mountains statewide, including the Olympic Mountains.
The “constant” 5 to 15 degrees above normal mountain temperatures have driven the onset of drought conditions, Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for Washington Snow Survey Office, told an audience of about 140 people gathered in Sequim on May 21 at a community drought forum.
“This is just a total anomaly,” he said.
In the 61 years of manual snow surveys coupled with more recent and growing datasets from four fully automated weather stations (SNOTEL) scattered among the Olympic Mountains, snowpack is at its lowest, according to Pattee.
Unlike the Elwha River in a nearby basin that relies more heavily on rainfall to maintain its flow, the Dungeness River is greatly impacted by snowpack.
“It’s (Dungeness River) is not solely a snow-driven basin, but it is a large component,” Pattee said.
Thus, despite the “roughly normal rainfall,” the warm temperatures caused the peak runoff to occur in December versus March, he said.
Little snowpack to supplement the surrounding watersheds throughout the year already is taking its toll on the Dungeness River and smaller streams, and is reflected in the lack of runoff.
Low river flows are cause for concern among the community, especially irrigators and those involved with fish management.
“From what we’ve ever seen in the past, we’re at the bottom of historic stream flows,” Pattee said.
Although other low snowpack years have been recorded, notably in 1977, 2001 and 2005, they don’t match up to today’s status.
“At least we had something in other years … this year we have nothing,” Pattee said. “Seventy-five percent of surface water supplies come from mountain snowpack — without that, you can just guess what the consequences are.”
Residents of Sequim and surrounding areas rely on the Olympic Mountains as a water reservoir, Jeff Marti, Washington Department of Ecology’s water resources program drought coordinator, said.
Identifying areas where water users likely would incur undue hardships and were experiencing or projected to experience a water supply that is below 75 percent of normal are the criteria prior to declaring a drought.
“On the Olympic Peninsula what really drove the consideration of ‘hardship’ was the fisheries considerations, but also the potential impacts on small communities, especially communities that don’t have storage available to help them get through the summer and are the more vulnerable,” Marti said.
The Olympic Peninsula was among the first areas in the state labeled with drought in early March. By May, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought.
In response to the predicted dry months ahead, City of Sequim officials intend to conserve water and encourage conservation by sending out fliers to utility users with options for reducing outdoor and indoor water use.
“It’s one of the obvious things we can do,” David Garlington, City of Sequim engineer and interim public works director, said. “Summertime is our high water use time of year because of outdoor irrigation.”
Additionally, since last year, the city adopted a utility rate structure switching from a two- to three-tier system to provide economic incentive to conserve water.
“If more water is used, you pay more for that next tier of water,” he said.
Ways city officials are looking to increase ground water levels and/or maintain more water in the Dungeness River is through infiltration. Allowing reclaimed water from the city’s Water Reclamation Facility to filter back into the ground is one way to augment the groundwater, Garlington said. During the winter months, city officials are interested in potentially capturing stormwater to allow it to infiltrate back into the ground before it enters the salt water.
Lastly, Garlington noted the city is looking into drilling a deeper well in hopes of offsetting the surface water impacts on the Dungeness River, as well as partnering with commercial agricultural interests to potentially supply them with reclaimed water.
“I am just really encouraged with the way everyone is pulling together on this,” he said.
Timely with the recent drought declaration, city officials released the city’s first Storm and Surface Water Master Plan last week for public review.
The bottom line of Storm and Surface water Master Plan is to “treat stormwater as a resource not a problem,” Ann Soule, Sequim City water resource specialist said during a Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce luncheon May 26.
“The key is to use it before it runs into the ocean,” she said.
To answer water and plan related inquires, Soule hosts ongoing open houses twice weekly on Wednesdays from 8-10 a.m., and Thursdays from noon-2 p.m., at the city’s Interpretive Center, 500 N. Blake Ave.
A possible longterm tool for managing drought conditions in the future is the development of a reservoir system.
“There’s big support for a reservoir,” Amanda Cronin, project manager with Washington Water Trust, said.
Multiple agencies, including both the city and Washington Water Trust, are collaborating to explore a possible large storage site off River Road owned by the Department of Natural Resources.
“The concept is to store water from the river during peak season and allow irrigators to use that water during irrigation season instead of taking it from the river,” Cronin said. “Funding is a challenge.”
The price of the reservoir alone is $32 million.
Fish and Farming
The Dungeness River historically has been and continues be a lifeline to all those living nearby. To help manage this important resource officials with the Sequim-Dungeness Water Users Association, composed of the seven senior irrigation district and companies, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Department of Ecology rely on an agreement established in 1998.
The irrigators can’t take more than 50 percent of the river and always must leave a minimum of 60 cfs (cubic foot per second) in the river, Ben Smith, Sequim-Dungeness Water Users Association president, said.
Given the state of drought and to help limit water use, officials with the Washington Water Trust are managing a voluntary dry-year leasing program with $200,000 from the Washington Department of Ecology.
The state funds are administered by the Washington Water Trust are used to pay willing irrigators not to irrigate.
As of late May, Cronin reported 22 bids were accepted from 13 local irrigators. As a result 800 acres won’t be irrigated during the last 30 days of the irrigation season beginning mid August.
The farming community is not alone in pursuing alternatives in response to the drought, but both state and tribal officials are preparing for a hard road ahead. The low flows within the river aren’t conducive to fish passage up or downriver.
Varying by species, but typically rivers, including the Dungeness are active with fish runs July through October, Teresa Scott, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife drought coordinator, said.
“I’m pretty concerned with our flows and getting the fish upstream,” she said.
Shallow, low flowing water can become warmer and be a catalyst for more disease to occur in hatcheries
“Fish in hatcheries is something my agency invests a lot of money in, and whether you agree with hatchery production or not, it’s still a huge investment,” Scott said.
Also, since warmer water doesn’t hold as much oxygen, increased temperatures can make it difficult for fish to survive,” she said. Low flows also can limit fish passage because of both natural and manmade blockages, such as accumulated sediment or side channels without enough water to allow fish to swim.
“When there’s less water area, there’s of course less area for fish to spawn in and grow-up in,” she said.
State and tribal officials are prepared with a variety of methods and to help ensure fish passage. Examples of techniques include using sandbags and/or bales of straw to line the river’s banks to deepen the channel, physically removing blockages, manually catching and transporting the fish upriver, creating diversions, using a flume to get stranded fish further up river and storage of water to release to create a pulse of water, allowing fish to travel upriver.
“It really worries me to think about how many of these methods we may have to do this year,” Scott said. “One thing that we’re doing is we have a special fishery in Dungeness Bay to try to catch as many pinks as we can before they head up the river so when they do try to go upriver they have some place to go.”
An estimated 500 chinook salmon, 9,800 coho salmon and 1.3 million pink salmon are forecasted to return to the Dungeness River.
“With record estimated returns of pink salmon in the Dungeness and a record low flow, that is not a good combination and we may see the few chinook we have trying to get up problem riffles,” Scott Chitwood, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe natural resources department director, said.
“We’re going to have monitor closely and take really major measures to make sure fish can get to their spawning grounds,” he added.
Department of Ecology officials have a request into the Legislature for $9 million for drought relief, Dan Partridge, communications manager for DOE’s Water Resources Program, said. Relief funds may be used for agricultural and fisheries projects, emergency water-right permits, changes to existing water rights and grant water-right transfers.