A parched summer is posing difficulties for Washington farmers and fish

The Northwest is likely to have lower snowfall this winter due to the El Niño weather pattern that’s taken hold

By: - August 1, 2023 2:13 pm
Irrigation equipment in Washington state.

Irrigation equipment sits idle in Washington state. (Washington state Department of Ecology)

The record-warm May that burned off a sizable chunk of the state’s snowpack has left flows in many of Washington’s rivers and streams depleted heading into late summer.

It’s not the driest year the state has seen. But it’s still bad news for fish that depend on cool water and ample streamflows for survival and farmers who tap snow-fed waterways to irrigate crops. With weeks of summer left to go, there are signs of the stress the conditions are creating for people and wildlife.

Sturgeon are turning up dead in higher-than-normal numbers in pools on the Columbia River, irrigators in the Yakima River basin are cutting water deliveries to farms, and wildlife managers are expecting to build a flume to help trout navigate a section of dry streambed.

Drought in Oregon

Since taking office in January, Gov. Tina Kotek has declared drought emergencies in 10 counties: Crook, Deschutes, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Jackson, Jefferson, Lake, Sherman and Wasco.

The state Department of Ecology declared drought emergencies in parts of 12 counties last week. In some of those places, small water districts in outlying areas have taken to trucking water to customers.

“We lost our cushion, so to speak, with snowpack” in May, Jeff Marti, drought coordinator in Ecology’s Water Resources Division told state lawmakers during a Monday meeting of the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought.

Through the end of summer and into early fall, the outlook is warm and dry. “I’d say the next few weeks, above normal temperatures and minimal if any precipitation,” said Nick Bond, a state climatologist.

Looking further, forecasters are warning that this winter’s snowpack could be anemic due to the climate pattern known as El Niño. Bond noted that there have been years with strong El Niño conditions when precipitation was greater than average, but it can be due to rain as opposed to snow.

“I’m quite confident, if not absolutely certain, that there’s going to be subpar snowpack next year,” Bond said.

Irrigator woes

Urban Eberhart, district manager for the Kittitas Reclamation District, a main irrigation district in the Yakima River basin, said the drought emergency declaration “was urgently needed” in the region.

The declaration unlocks access to additional funds at both the state and federal levels for affected areas and enables Ecology to take steps like processing emergency water rights permits and transfers.

Kittitas and other irrigation districts in the basin are only expecting 72% of their full water supply allotments from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That means less water for crop-growers.

Eberhart explained to lawmakers how the district is administering water in a “very restricted fashion” compared to normal, with plans to dial down water deliveries in the weeks ahead.

“We’re not anticipating any water available at all to us in the month of October,” he said, adding that this underscores the need for emergency drought well authorizations to provide water for late-season crops.

Scott Revell, district manager for the Roza Irrigation District, which is also in the Yakima basin, said while there are “definitely hardships” due to the dry conditions, “they vary by farm, they vary by crop.”

“It is not a crisis yet,” he said.

Revell noted that grapes, hops, and apples are all examples of crops that are watered into late September and early October in Washington.

Bracing for the possible fallout from a low snowpack year due to El Nino, Revell said the Roza Irrigation District is looking at leasing water and considering whether to revive a cloud-seeding program.

He told lawmakers the district may be back in front of them during the next session seeking financial help.

Eberhart and Revell highlighted work happening and planned in the Yakima basin to save and store more water, including upgrades to irrigation canals, switching to more water-efficient drip irrigation systems, and a reservoir project.

“We’re really trying to get the Yakima basin prepared for what we’re looking at right now to be more like the new normal,” Eberhart said.

Dead sturgeon and a fish flume

Megan Kernan, water policy section manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency hasn’t recorded “exceptionally severe drought impacts” so far this year. But she also said early and mid-July saw August-like conditions that could leave wildlife increasingly stressed in late summer.

“If that trend continues, it could be pretty problematic,” Kernan added.

There are some signs of trouble already, such as diminished streamflows that can make it harder for fish like salmon to travel. Low flows also mean water warms more. Kernan likened it to how a pot on a stove heats up faster with less water in it. The warmer water isn’t easy on fish.

Fish and Wildlife has pointed to warmer-than-usual water temperatures as a likely contributor to sturgeon deaths on the Columbia River. Sturgeon can live to be around a century old in some cases. Wildlife managers, in response to the spell of deaths, imposed a sturgeon fishing closure on a large segment of the Columbia. It went into effect on Saturday and will last until Sept. 15.

Water remains cooler than in 2015 when elevated river temperatures were blamed for a massive sockeye salmon die-off on the Columbia, Kernan said.

Fish and Wildlife, Kernan noted, anticipates constructing an artificial channel, or flume, this summer out of plastic sheeting and straw bales on a creek in the upper Yakima River basin, off of Kachess Lake. It’s meant to provide passage over dry sections for bull trout listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“We have been rescuing stranded fish in the upper Yakima for a number of weeks,” Kernan said.

There are also concerns about land animals having fewer high-quality forage plants available, leaving them more susceptible to illness and less resilient heading into winter.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.