Fall rains may have brought a brief respite during this year's record-breaking drought, but today, Washington state officials announced that the drought is far from over—and they're already preparing for the worst in the year ahead. The Department of Ecology's Maia Bellon hopped on a call this morning to tell reporters that "the climate deck may be stacked against us," and she painted a pretty dire picture of what's already happened and what we can expect to happen next.
Here's more of Bellon's vivid statement, which is worth reading in full:
Most of western Washington is still in severe drought. All of central and eastern Washington is even worse and it's in extreme drought. And in fact, 68 percent of the state remains extreme drought status. So we smashed water records all over the map this year, but none of them were good... Crazy low river levels, with creek beds that morphed into dry, cobblestone paths; salmon stranded, returning home to spawn, with lethally warm water killing other fish; and water was curtailed for almost 900 junior water rights holders in more than a dozen river basins. And when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did, with the hottest August on the planet. Devastating wildfires and broken lives. Agricultural losses were worse than feared. Farmers have fallowed land. Cattle ranchers have had to ship off livestock early because of dry pastures. And orchards are languishing, producing smaller apples and smaller berries. The Yakima basin has had virtually no relief, but water for irrigation is still needed. For fruit trees, for example, and for fall plantings of onions and seed crops in the Walla Walla basin.
Right now, nature seems upside down.
Bellon also stressed that areas of the state that have historically been water-secure, including Seattle, are now facing emergency water shortage plans:
In another twist, the rainiest place in the country, Forks, Washington, announced emergency water restrictions just last week. In March, the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett were sure they'd get a reprieve from the drought, but this summer they ended up triggering a voluntary phase of their water shortage response plan and asked customers to cut water use by 10 percent. Now, Seattle has launched a broad campaign on water conservation. You'll see the ads on TV and in the newspaper in terms of trying to get this right for getting ready for next year.
The problem shaping up for next year, she explained, is that this year's drought has left us looking at "a huge water deficit" for this coming winter. On top of that, winter looks warm—with possibly 70 to 80 percent of normal snowpack—which could further starve snow-fed reservoirs and ecosystems for next year:
Rains are desperately needed to recharge these reservoirs, and even then, that won't be enough to get us through next summer. We need winter snowpack in the mountains, what we call our "frozen reservoir." And there's growing concern we may not get it, and if we don't, the harm may be felt much earlier next year and be more costly. Between the blob off the coast and El Niño, the climate deck may be stacked against us. And while we hope for the best, we are preparing for the worst.
This year's drought also contributed to the severity of wildfire season, which burned a million acres. "No area of the state was left untouched," Bob Johnson, manager of the Department of Natural Resources wildfire division, said. A million and a half juvenile fish died in state hatcheries because of disease and other factors related to the heat and river flows.
It's not common for Washington to endure drought two years in a row, but state officials say the forecast doesn't look very good. (Scientists are calling this year's climate conditions a preview of what the future will look like in decades to come.) And even though drought affects farmers and eastern Washington much more severely than Seattle's typically rain-soaked bubble, state climatologist Nick Bond told reporters that even city apartment-dwellers should care about drought conditions. After all, 89 percent of the city's electricity comes from hydropower, and if low river flows persist, City Light may face new stresses in years to come.