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Late snow no drought cure - Cool summer may help us, but farmers face catastrophe
2001-04-22 by Catherine Hawley Journal Reporter
In these first weeks of spring, beginning just after Gov. Gary Locke declared a drought emergency in the state, snow has been falling in the mountains.
This week, in the part of the Cascade Range closest to the Eastside and Seattle, the snow's water content -- a better indicator than snow depth when it comes to predicting water supply -- reached 78 percent of normal for this time of year.
Six weeks ago, the figure was closer to 60 percent.
In certain areas, snow-water levels are higher than normal. Twenty miles southeast of North Bend, the Tinkham Creek weather station, for instance, is at 111 percent of average this week.
So are we still having a drought?
There's no disputing that statewide, this past winter's snowfall was one of the lowest since the U.S. Weather Service started keeping records in 1945. The only winter that was drier was 1976-77.
We have more people now: 5.9 million instead of 4.1 million in 1980. With more people come greater demands for water and electricity.
In addition, there are new demands to leave free-flowing water in the rivers for fish.
Despite small pockets of near-average or above-average snowfall, across Washington, sensors are showing snow-water content as low as 55 percent of normal.
And now, there's little chance of accumulating more. By mid-April, spring's warmer temperatures and longer periods of sunshine melt and evaporate snow about as fast as it falls.
Whatever snow we have now must fill reservoirs, power hydroelectric turbines, irrigate crops and supply the drinking, washing and watering needs of nearly 6 million people.
Less severe here
For some farmers east of the Cascades, this drought is already shaping up to be a disaster. Yakima Valley farmers have been told to expect only a third as much water as they usually get. Those whose water rights put them second or third in line may get no water at all. The troubles for growers come atop a series of market and economic problems that have left many farms on the edge financially.
``For now, the biggest impact of the drought is on farmers who irrigate,'' Locke told The Associated Press. ``The agriculture industry feeds us all and provides thousands of jobs. It's a major player in our state's economy, so when it hurts, we all suffer.''
Drought emergencies have been declared in Washington and parts of Oregon, a step toward seeking federal aid. Montana has declared a drought alert. More declarations might come in parts of California and Nevada.
Despite the plight of farmers, for most Washingtonians -- including the majority of Eastside residents and businesses -- the impacts of drought will be moderate, consisting mainly of higher utility bills and constant reminders to conserve.
Most people can expect to make no drastic changes in the way they use water.
Shadow of a drought?
So can we say we're having a drought on the Eastside?
Drought is hard to quantify. It's relative, characterized by abnormally low moisture levels, given whatever ``normal'' might be amid the constant ups and downs of each climate.
And it's difficult to say exactly when below-average moisture becomes something to worry about.
``We may say truthfully that we have no good definition of drought,'' an assistant chief in the U.S. Weather Bureau wrote in 1947, more than a decade after Dust Bowl conditions devastated a swath of the nation's farms. ``No one knows how serious it will be until the last dry day is gone and the rains have come again. ... We are not sure about it until the crops have withered and died.''
More than a half-century later, researchers have more tools for analyzing weather patterns and measuring soil moisture, vegetation conditions and other indicators of drought.
They can look at indexes combining several weather factors and measure drought on a number scale.
Still, there's no common, official definition of drought. In Washington, a drought is declared whenever snowpack measurements show there will be less than 75 percent of normal runoff and the shortage is expected to cause undue hardship for at least some water users. Gov. Locke signed a drought declaration March 14.
In its weekly update, the state Department of Ecology said Friday that cool weather has delayed melting of the mountain snowpack. Some areas have close to normal readings for snow-water content.
A cool spring and summer could make the most of the limited snowpack by feeding streams and rivers steadily over time instead of all at once.
``The longer the snowpack lasts, the better off the streams will be later,'' hydrologist Doug McChesney said.
But no matter how slowly it melts, ``the total amount of snow has not been enough,'' meteorologist Burke said.
In the vast Columbia River Basin, the water supply forecast through September is 53 percent of its average volume -- a little more than half the water typically available.
``This is a potential new record,'' said Phil Pasteris of the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore.
In Oregon and Washington, reservoir levels have dropped so low that many boat docks are already high and dry, and tree stumps are showing at the bottom of the lakes.
In Montana, where trout anglers stalk their prey on sparkling mountain streams, fisheries managers say fishing restrictions are likely to protect fish in low, slow-moving and dangerously warm waters.
Land managers throughout the West are bracing for a fire season with the potential to be as brutal as last year's, which blackened nearly 7 million acres of national forest.
``On the whole West Coast we have two seasons: wet and dry,'' Burke said. ``You rely on a decent wet season to get you through the dry season.''
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), April 22, 2001
-- spider (email@example.com), April 22, 2001.