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Bout With Drought 

A couple of weeks ago, we were hard at work on a cover story about drought in Washington. Then two things happened: the West scandal erupted, and it started to rain. While one story distracted us, the other made its issue a moot point.

But the drought is hardly irrelevant, despite the wet weather. Because while all the rain that's been hitting Washington on both sides of the mountains is helping keep lawns lush and green, it's doing little to fill the void that an unusually mild winter made in the state's water accounts. Judging by precipitation and snow-pack levels, the National Weather Service reports that this last winter was one of the five driest on record -- and in some parts of the state, the driest ever. The Department of Ecology is predicting that most of the state's watersheds will be running at between 22 and 50 percent of their usual rate this year. And that's if the state gets normal precipitation over the summer, which of course nobody can guarantee.

Vanished snow packs, puny rain clouds, streams running dry. The situation was bad enough back in March for Gov. Christine Gregoire to declare a "drought emergency" (only the fifth in Washington's history), which released $8.2 million to the drought effort, put the state on red alert and permitted it to start tapping new and existing emergency wells and to negotiate with water rights holders to redistribute resources. It's bad enough still that this week, the state's top committees responsible for responding to the drought -- Ecology, Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources, etc. -- are meeting in Yakima, the hardest-hit area in the state so far, to size up the summer and develop a game plan for dealing with the drought's effects.

Here's a brief rundown of the issues they might be looking at.

Agriculture

Reports have already started trickling in that some farmers in Eastern Washington (particularly around Yakima, which leans heavily on snow pack for its water) have suffered damage to perennial crops like apples and grapes, or lost necessary water to government redistribution, or have had to shift their planting (or simply plant less) to accommodate the drought.

At the end of March, the state branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a prospective planting survey showing that, across the board, Washington farmers indicated they'd be planting significantly less than they did in 2004. Wheat's down 17 percent; barley's at its lowest since 1953.

Ecology spokesman Curt Hart says the agricultural outlook is up since the recent rain systems have swept through, but the situation is still tense. An anemic farming year could seriously ding the economy, and the drought has already started taking potshots at it via the recreation industry: A lousy ski season saw layoffs and early closures.

Fire

Low water reserves and a potentially hot, dry summer could turn state forests and farmlands into a veritable tinderbox. And the recent rain, says Rob Harper of the state's emergency management division, hasn't solved that problem. "[The state doesn't] see the overall drought situation changing a whole heck of a lot from what we saw in the spring," he says. So the Department of Natural Resources, buoyed by a $200,000 allocation from the governor, has already started hiring and training firefighters, three months earlier than usual. They're also training National Guard soldiers in basic firefighting, though that might not be enough. Most of Washington's Guard has returned from Iraq, but it's still locked under federal duty. Montana's story is about the same. About 60 percent of Idaho's Guard, on the other hand, is available and ready. Washington's success this fire season might hinge on an agreement reached in April between Gov. Gregoire and the governors of Oregon, Idaho and Montana to share Guard resources, which includes personnel and firefighting aircraft.

Fish and Wildlife


John Andrews is happy with the recent rains. The director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Eastern Washington region says that the precipitation has gotten grasses and other vegetation growing for deer and elk populations, which is good, but that "the drought is not over." He shares the rest of the DFW's concern that the record low flows in Washington watersheds put the pinch on fish. "We're very concerned state-wide that adult fish returning to streams this fall ... will very probably face significant restrictions and barriers in getting up to the headwaters to spawn."

The low flows concern non-spawning fish, too. Less water means warmer water, which is bad for fish. As is cramming the same number of fish into a smaller space. As is the potential for the concentration of pollutants.

And that concerns people, too, he says. "The problems that fish are experiencing, people are experiencing. I think it's an indicator of the health of the ecosystem overall."

Conservation

There's nothing that the state of Washington can do to make more rain fall or to bring back the melting snow pack. But to some extent, it can regulate how much of the state's scarce water resources are used. As mentioned above, Ecology has already started looking at ways to redistribute water -- siphoning it here, pouring it out over there. They've already clamped down on water users with junior rights on the Little Spokane River, one of 19 streams in the state that has a set minimum flow. If that flow falls below a certain point, Ecology turns off the tap. Water users on the Little Spokane have to call the department every day to check out the situation, to see if they can use water that day.

But Ecology can't force that kind of conservation on public water suppliers, like the one in Spokane. Only the supplier itself can recommend that its users cut down on their showers. And Spokane Water Department Director Brad Blegen doesn't seem worried. The "drought situation here is a whole lot different than the rest of the state," he says, noting that, with the aquifer, the Spokane area doesn't rely so heavily on snow pack and precipitation. Worst-case scenario? The drought gets so bad this summer that the Water Department has to regulate who gets to water their lawn and when. But, he says, "I don't think you'll see that here this year."

For more information on the drought, visit washingtondrought.org, a Web site hosted by the Department of Ecology.

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