Water column: Drought, again

Last week our Dungeness and Elwha watersheds were added to the list of river basins with emergency drought declared. The Clallam Bay-Sekiu area was declared in May and residents now face curtailment of their water use.

Drought is declared when normal water sources are predicted to be in short supply, whether that supply comes from rain or snowmelt. The only area in Washington state not in drought now is the urban zone from Everett to Tacoma, since their century-old surface water reservoirs filled up nicely over the winter.

The Dungeness snowpack filled out nicely, too, which is why ours was one of the last basins to be declared. Indeed, the last time I wrote this column was in April when — believe it or not — we were celebrating a whopping 251% snowpack! This was relative to the 30-year normal and at the time I questioned whether it could be an “April Fools” situation. Now we know — it was.

And it was not. The “heat dome” of late June seemed to evaporate the snowfields in our mountain view. Without that factor our snow storage might have lasted until August or September — but with more than normal warmth and dryness predicted all summer, probably not.

With global warming, time is not on our side.

Fire and water

Of high concern is the status of our forests, after the extreme heat zapped their moisture and made them especially prone to wildfire. Intense fires just over the Cascade crest and in Oregon and California — again — are in the news already but the season of thunderstorms and lightning-strike fires has barely begun.

The heat, dryness, and water shortages are affecting vegetation everywhere; wheat farmers are warning that their crops have been severely impacted, for one example.

In addition, warmer than normal water is bad for salmon and all marine life at our latitude. Reportedly, millions (more likely billions) of tidepool creatures baked to death during June’s heat dome because it coincided with extreme low tides which left the critters exposed for too long.

Poor timing — and time — was not on their side.

Related of course is a high concern for people … BREATHING. Being cooped up indoors because of smoke is only slightly less deadly than being cooped up due to heat. We learned the hard way a few weeks ago that hundreds in our region suffered or died from overheating in their own homes; at least four died in Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Similarly, in smoky conditions, people with major or minor respiratory issues who aren’t fortunate to have access to electrically cooled and conditioned air are at risk and likely very anxious.

Local impact

How does the state’s declared drought for the Dungeness impact us? An official declaration makes emergency funds available to those experiencing “undue hardship” and addresses two local causes, at least: First, farmers who use irrigation water from the Dungeness River for late summer crops (mostly hay) will be eligible for payments from the state if they agree to forbearance and not divert water like usual. (Since the state granted irrigators water rights a century ago, and now doesn’t want irrigators to exercise those rights, the state must replace the farmers’ lost revenue.)

This practice helps these farmers financially but a lack of hay feed later this year begets a different problem. Plus, livestock ranchers and farmers of non-feed crops must irrigate all summer and don’t have the option of forbearance for pay.

Second, projects that improve the chance of survival for salmon migrating up our rivers this summer will get priority for additional emergency funds.

Notably, one local project that addresses long term water supply issues is the proposed Dungeness Off-Channel Reservoir; led by Clallam County, the reservoir would add resiliency for agriculture, salmon and groundwater aquifers as our frozen reservoirs in the mountains become less reliable over time. This water storage project probably isn’t eligible for emergency funds because it already has some state funding for design and engineering.

Of course, it goes without saying that a drought declaration is a clarion call for everyone to conserve water.

Finally, emergency shelters for people needing relief from heat or smoke, or both, are made available through other mechanisms but a drought declaration amplifies the need. Check in on your neighbors and anyone who can’t afford air cooling and associated higher electric bills.

Neither used to be needed in this corner of the planet … but they are now.

Climate actions

There are many wicked problems with no clear solution in our complex world, but the climate crisis does not qualify. Developed nations have the innovations and technologies to mitigate climate change.

What we need is willpower and leadership at every level to take advantage of natural energy sources like sunshine and wind.

The Pacific Northwest is not adapted to extreme heat and smoke — neither its people nor its flora and fauna. But individuals can help put time back on our side.

Here are some ideas:

• Immediately: Conserve water. In other regions people think that conserving water just paves the way for more population growth. Here, because of the direct connections between irrigation water from the Dungeness River, salmon in the River, and groundwater aquifers used for drinking, we know that conserving water in our yards and homes can benefit the entire community, farms and fish.

• Soon: Learn what your local governments are doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change such as establishing shelters for people at risk from heat or smoke and building the Dungeness water storage reservoir.*

• Next: Help curb the climate crisis by pledging to shrink your family’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Contact Clallam County Public Health and Emergency Management departments for questions on cooling centers and smoke-relief centers; browse here for info on the reservoir: clallam.net/publicworks/DungenessOCRProject.html.

Geek moment

For the 2021 Water Year (started Oct. 1, 2020), as of July 19, 2021:

• At the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level): Cumulative rainfall = 16 inches. Maximum temperature = 93 degrees Fahrenheit on June 28 (highest on record)

• At the Dungeness SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 ft.): Snow depth = 0 inches. Cumulative precipitation = 38 inches (88 percent of normal)

• At the USGS gage on the Dungeness (River Mile 11.2): Current flow = 305 cubic feet per second (cfs), on gradual decline as snow melts out, from the high on June 3 of 1,090 cfs

• At the state Ecology gage (River Mile 0.8): Flow = 231 cfs. (Watch this number over coming weeks as salmon are entering the river to spawn and need at least 100 cfs: apps.ecology.wa.gov/ContinuousFlowAndWQ/StationDetails?sta=18A050)

• Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: 0 cfs; at Washington Harbor: estimated 1-3 cfs because of spring flow and reclaimed water inflow.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, reporting water news on a seasonal basis and happy to share stories of her EV and solar panels — both purchased used. Now the Resource Manager for City of Sequim, any opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at www.watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.