Spare the water for fish; brown lawns will come back

Water levels at this location on the Green River, photographed on July 23, typically do not reach this level until late September or early October.
Water levels at this location on the Green River, photographed on July 23, typically do not reach this level until late September or early October. Courtesy

This season, brown is the new green. The West’s historic drought is challenging Puget Sounders to decide which we value most: our lawns or our wildlife.

Here’s the fix we’re in:

Never before — since people started keeping records — have the Cascade Mountains come through winter with so little snow. On top of that, it’s been the driest spring and summer the region has ever seen.

The drought and lack of snowmelt has turned stretches of some streams and rivers into slow-moving trickles and ponds.

Migrating salmon face a death march. The brutal heat has pushed water temperatures far above normal. These fish are designed for cold water, which carries more oxygen. Water temperatures higher than 70 degrees can asphyxiate them.

Even below that, warmer-than-usual temperatures expose fish bacteria and fungus that normally can’t get traction in the cold, resulting in gill rot and other diseases. Fish trapped in pools and side streams become easy pickings for raccoons and other predators.

The disaster runs from California to Canada. In this state, an estimated 1.5 million hatchery fish have died this year. More than 200,000 migrating sockeye have basically cooked to death in the Columbia River while trying to reach their spawning beds. Fish throughout the Cascade watersheds are stressed.

What do lawns have to do with all this?

The Puget Sound region’s largest water utilities — including Tacoma Water, which supplies much of Pierce County and some of King County — get their water from reservoirs in the Cascades and from deep wells.

This summer, Tacoma Water has been pumping between 40 to 60 percent of its supply from wells — a large quantity. But the utility is still dependent on the reservoir behind the Howard Hanson dam on the Green River.

Endangered chinook and coho salmon runs in the Green River need releases of water from the same reservoir. This year, they have extra competition from an expected 600,000 pink salmon, a run that ascends the river on odd-numbered years. The more water we leave in the river, the safer the endangered species will be.

One perversity of a drought is that demand for water rises as supply falls. People in this area have been using a third more water than they normally do, a lot of it to keep their lawns green in the abnormally hot and dry weather.

On Tuesday, Tacoma, Seattle and Everett declared “stage two” water reductions. (Gig Harbor had already done so.) This is voluntary; it amounts to a plea to the public to use 10 percent less. If the long-range forecasts hold, there will be no need for mandatory restrictions. But if the drought gets worse than projected, the Green River reservoir could fall to levels catastrophic for fish.

If the public rises to the challenge — letting lawns go dormant, fixing leaks, running dishwashers only when full, taking shorter showers, etc. — a crisis is unlikely to materialize.

This summer, a brown lawn should be a matter of pride for homeowners. Grass will burst into life again when the fall rains start. Dead salmon won’t.