Central Washington is experiencing a new kind of drought that has serious implications for the state’s future.
Water isn’t the problem; there’s been plenty of it this year. But what’s been coming down from the clouds has been warmer. In the mountains, over the winter and early spring, it mostly came down as raindrops, not snowflakes.
As a result, the Cascade snowpack is shockingly low. Many mountain slopes normally blanketed in white have been nearly bare.
That’s no crisis in the Puget Sound lowlands. It’s another story on the other side of the mountains. Central Washington farming — especially in the Yakima Basin, whose agriculture is worth $3 billion a year — was built on the assumption that snow falls in the mountains.
As the rain-filled mountain reservoirs empty into the rivers through the summer, they are normally replenished by snowmelt, providing irrigation water into early October.
But this year has brought the lowest snowpack on record, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. “We’ve never experienced a drought like this before,” said state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon in April. “It’s not for lack of rain, but lack of snow.”
Washington farmers have weathered many droughts in the past. They hurt, especially in regions — notably the Yakima Valley — that specialize in tree fruits and grapes.
A wheat or alfalfa farm can lose a summer crop, and next year will still promise another crop. But when drought kills orchards and vineyards, great investments are lost. In a low-water year, irrigators and governments must scramble to keep expensive perennial plants alive.
That’s happening now. Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for Central Washington in March and has since expanded it to the rest of the state.
The Department of Ecology and other agencies have been arranging for farms with secondary water rights to lease water from older farms that have first claim on irrigation water. They’re arranging relief for threatened farmers and preparing to protect fish from shallow, warm water.
The Legislature should have already approved $9 million or more for those emergency measures. That money’s been trapped in the continuing impasse over the operating budget, forcing Ecology to raid other funds. Lawmakers presumably won’t leave farmers high and dry before they leave Olympia (hopefully) this month.
Immediate relief is urgent; long term solutions are even more important. The state already has a carefully thought out blueprint for action in the Yakima Valley, the $4 billion Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Plan. It would modify existing dams and reservoirs, create fish passages, expand underground and surface water storage, and improve habitat protection.
The money will have to come from state, federal and local governments. The current drought should be spurring people to action.
More storage and efficiency can only go so far, though, if the climate continues to deliver rain instead of snow in the Cascades.
According to NASA, the world’s 10 warmest years on record have come since 1997. This year brought the warmest winter. An El Nino pattern is now developing, which likely means an unusually warm 2016.
We’re seeing what balmy winters do to agriculture. As the mercury rises, Washington’s farms stand in jeopardy.