Washington State declares drought emergency

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Image: Mount Rainier / Shutterstock

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has declared a statewide drought emergency, triggered by critically low snowpack levels that have caused rivers and watersheds to deplete.

According to the state’s Department of Ecology, mountain snowpacks are just 16 per cent of normal levels, with 66 of 98 snow sites currently snow free including 11 areas that are free of snow for the first time in history.

Snowmelt replenishes rivers and streams with water that keeps crops watered and fish alive. In the mountains, snowpacks act as a ‘bank’ of stored water, a crucial supply during the summer months when rainfall may not be enough to keep rivers flowing.

But snow has already melted in the central Puget Sound basin, upper Yakima basin and on the Olympic Peninsula. Even during the first few weeks of spring in April, nearly 80 per cent of the state’s streams were already running below or significantly below normal.

“This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced,” said state Ecology Director Maia Bellon. “Rain amounts have been normal but snow has been scarce. And we’re watching what little snow we have quickly disappear.”

The state government has ordered irrigation districts in the Yakima Basin, the state’s most productive agricultural region, to turn off water for weeks at a time. About $1.2 billion in crops could be destroyed this year due to the drought.

In other areas where large volumes of fish congregate, water is being shifted from creek to creek to keep water flowing for steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. Fish are even being hauled out of water and relocated upstream where there is cooler water.

No water shortages are anticipated for the most populated regions of the state, such as Seattle, Tacoma and Everrett. At this time, these areas still have adequate levels of water in their reservoir storage.

“We have some tough, challenging months ahead of us,” said Governor Inslee in a statement. “We’re ready to bring support and relief to the hardest hit areas of the state. We’re going to do everything we can to get through this.”

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