You’d have to be a hermit to be unaware that Washington state is having a bad water year. The winter of 2014-15 was very warm — 5 degrees F warmer than average. It rained plenty, but snowed little. And what snow there was is now mostly gone.
Spring runoff for most rivers came weeks if not months early, and rivers are now flowing at levels we’d expect to see in mid-summer. Rivers need snowmelt to sustain flows throughout the summer. Unless it rains, hot weather will cause an increase in water temperatures in streams and rivers. Combined with low flows, river conditions will be hostile to salmon and trout species that need cold, abundant water to migrate and complete their life cycles.
And, it probably won’t rain. El Niño, the ocean-warming phenomenon that drives weather patterns, is present in the North Pacific. NOAA scientists are observing high sea surface temperatures – unusual for this time of year – and predicting an 80% chance that El Nino will last through the end of the year.
Washington State University’s Agriculture Weather Network translates the El Nino phenomenon into a prediction for Washington’s summer weather: El Nino typically “leads to warmer weather and less precipitation across much of the Pacific Northwest.”
The bottom line: Washington state is in the midst of a very serious drought. And, there’s potential it will become a multi-year drought — similar to California.
Given all this, questions come to mind about water management in Washington state. In some communities, it appears we neither recognize the dangers nor are responding in a logical fashion to the risks at hand. One way or another, money appears to be a predominant factor in drought response.
Question: Why is it there is a major focus on getting emergency water supplies to farmers (especially in the Yakima River basin), but municipalities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane are either messaging “everything’s okay” or just not saying anything at all?
Short Answer: Summer is the big revenue season for municipal water suppliers (primarily because of residential outdoor irrigation). Water purveyors do not want to signal that their customers should conserve because it will result in reduced revenue and hurt their bottom line. Regrettably, rivers will be seriously harmed because of this ‘no-conserve’ message, which is being disseminated not just by the purveyors but also by the Dept of Ecology and the Governor’s office.
Question: Why did “junior” water users in the Yakima basin plant cherry and apple orchards and other perennial crops, even though they were fully aware they would have limited access to water during a drought?
Short Answer: Water users who hold “junior” or “interruptible” water rights are on notice that in a water-short year, their water supply will be cut. When farmers with junior rights plant crops that cannot survive without regular irrigation, they are making an investment decision that involves substantial economic risk. In reality, junior water right holders have been betting on a bail-out. Per next item, they appear to be getting one.
Question: Why is the state spending millions of dollars in public subsidies for water mitigation for orchardists who are now destroying last year’s apple crops?
Short Answer: Washington farmers are destroying large amounts of last year’s apple crop that they were unable to sell. They blame the inability to ship to international destinations due to port slowdowns, but last year saw record apple over-production. What are the chances that Washington state will subsidize apple crops this year that will be destroyed next year? Indeed, the Department of Ecology is spending millions of dollars to underwrite drought leasing programs and emergency well use in the Walla Walla and Yakima River basins for agricultural users who hold junior water rights.
Washington’s Office of the Columbia River has spent nearly $200 million on water supply projects over the past 8 years, but very little of it has been directed toward water scarcity and drought response. Instead, OCR has function more like the Office of Cadillac Desert, studying dams and other irrigation projects that, if built, will ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
Question: Given drought conditions, why is the Department of Ecology issuing new water rights in areas where water supply is likely to be deficient?
Short Answer: For the last 3 years, the state legislature has included a budget proviso requiring Ecology to issue at least 500 water right decisions each year or lose a half million dollars in budget. This has converted the Water Resources Program into a permit factory.
One example of the ensuing folly is the proposal to issue water permits to illegal water users in the Nooksack River basin. Agency resources for the type of water management activities critical for managing for drought have dwindled to negligible levels (e.g., metering water use, promoting water conservation, measuring available surface and ground water supplies, enforcing against illegal use).
Meanwhile, of the state’s nearly $10 million drought budget, only $25,000 is dedicated to “conservation education.”
As rivers recede, the 2015 drought promises to reveal many mysteries and closeted skeletons. Who is making money off of drought? How low can our rivers go? The salmon life cycle is 2-4 years – how will the 2015 drought affect salmon returns in 2017-19? Will farms go out of business? Will farmers make more risk averse cropping decisions in the future? Inquiring minds, stay tuned.