The current drought outlook for the Olympic Peninsula just took another step in the wrong direction. In their weekly update of drought conditions across the country, the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) changed its classification for the Olympic Peninsula region from “moderate” to “severe” drought. According to the USDM, a severe drought classification can bring potential impacts of likely crop and pasture damage, water shortages, and water restrictions. In response to current conditions, some communities and water systems on the peninsula have already begun anticipating low water supply.
Preparing for drought impacts
Some local governments will submit applications for grant funding recently made available by the Department of Ecology to address hardships caused by drought. The 2019 Legislature appropriated $2 million to Ecology for drought response. Grant funding can be used for projects like drilling emergency standby wells, or helping fish hatcheries maintain cool and clean water for fish.
On the north end of the Peninsula Clallam Bay/Seiku, Upper Fairview, and Island View water systems have already begun to activate water shortage response plans. Water shortage plans help water systems conserve available water supplies to the extent possible, and to help determine if additional sources of water supply should be developed. Currently in Stage 2 of their plans, these systems are encouraging customers to conserve water and prepare for a more resource-protective response later this summer.
Warm and dry weather
We have had an unseasonably warm and dry spring, including the fourth-driest March on record, averaged statewide. Total precipitation on the western Olympic Peninsula from January thru May was the third driest since 1895. Even after a memorable bout of snow in February across much of Western Washington, we just didn’t have the snowpack or spring weather necessary for healthy water supplies.
Predictably, streamflows on the peninsula are substantially lower than normal. Most of them are in the bottom tenth percentile and some rivers like the Satsop and Wynoochee have hit record flows on some days this spring. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest River Forecast Center is forecasting that the Elwha and Skokomish Rivers may experience their second lowest seasonal (April – September) runoff this year.
Different criteria for state drought declaration
Recently, Gov. Inslee officially declared a drought emergency declaration for 27 watersheds including the entire Olympic Peninsula. The criteria for drought declaration is different than what is used by the USDM. There are two factors considered for drought declaration: The watershed must be at or below 75 percent of normal flow, and that the low water would cause undue hardship for agriculture, domestic water supply users and fishery uses.
A drought emergency declaration allows Ecology to expedite response actions like water right permitting and providing funding to local governments to address hardships caused by drought. Some examples of drought-relief projects that funding might be used for include leasing water rights, implementing water conservation programs, and developing alternative sources of water supplies for communities, farmers, and fish hatcheries.
Federal drought forecast
Ecology relies on a variety of data sources to evaluate Washington’s current and future water supply. At the federal level, the National Drought Mitigation Center releases a weeklymap of locations in the U.S. that are experiencing drought. The USDM relies on experts to synthesize the best available data and work with local observers to interpret the information. The USDM also incorporates ground truthing and information about how drought is affecting people, through a network of more than 450 observers across the country, including state climatologists, National Weather Service staff, Extension agents, and hydrologists.
By Jeff Zenk, Southwest Region communications