Peninsula drought termed “severe”

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The U.S. Drought Monitor has changed its classification of the Olympic Peninsula region’s 2019 drought from moderate to severe. If correct, that’s a prediction of crop and pasture damage, water shortages and water restrictions.

On June 10, the Hoh River saw its lowest flow ever on record for that day, as did the Satsop River in the southern part of the peninsula. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest River Forecast Center forecasts the Elwha and Skokomish Rivers will have their second-lowest seasonal (April-September) flows on record.

The Olympic Peninsula saw an “unseasonably” warm and dry spring, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology, with Washington in general experiencing its fourth-driest March since 1895, when Washington climate records began being kept.

The Western Olympic Peninsula saw its second-driest March-May period on record. As of May 1, the peninsula was at 50% of normal rainfall, and on April 1, when snowpack level usually reaches its peak, it was 75% of normal.

Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in April covering eastern Washington watersheds: the Okanogan, Methow and Upper Yakima, but on May 20 he expanded the designation to include 24 more watersheds and almost half of Washington State.

These included Olympic Peninsula watersheds: the Sol Duc, Elwha-Dungeness, Lyre-Hoko, Quilcene-Snow, Skokomish-Dosewallips, and Queets-Quinault watersheds. According to the Office of Governor Inslee, the drought emergency area was expanded due to “worsened, poor water supply conditions around the state and warmer and drier weather predictions through the summer.”

The last drought declaration for the Olympic Peninsula was in 2015, which saw lower snowpack levels than this year. Jeff Marti, drought coordinator for the Department of Ecology, said that the 2015 drought was driven by record-high temperatures that melted snowpack, while this year’s drought was precipitation-driven. “You need precipitation and temperature to tango in order to get your snowpack, and this year the precipitation is missing,” he said. “Compared to the previous 30 years, we’re still drastically low. Probably one of the bottom 5 years.”

Olympic Peninsula residents may be surprised by these statistics, with recent memories of the 2019 “Snowmageddon,” the unusually high February snowfall that blanketed Western Washington with up to two feet of snow, fresh in their minds. However, the snowpack and precipitation levels that followed were insufficient to match average water levels. As a result of this, streamflows across the peninsula are much lower than usual.

Rivers across the peninsula are seeing lower water levels than usual, with many of them flowing in the bottom 10th percentile of their average flows and some rivers seeing record lows on numerous days this past Spring.

Communities and water systems across the peninsula are bracing for low water supply. The water systems in Clallam Bay/Sekiu, Upper Fairview and Island View in Clallam County are currently in stage two of their water shortage response plans. These plans help conserve available water supplies and determine if additional sources of water supply should be introduced. In addition, these water systems are advocating for water conservation and informing people that a more intense response will follow later in the summer.

Marti said Clallam County came close to having to bail out Island View’s water system last year, as did other counties in Washington. The Department of Ecology has not seen any impact on crop yields so far this year, but has had to curtail water use by Eastern Washington farmers months early due to rivers dropping below the threshold.

“The emergency declaration allows us to expedite emergency water right permitting and make funds available to government entities to address hardships caused by drought conditions,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

The 2019 Legislature granted the Department of Ecology $2 million for drought response. This money can go towards drought relief projects such as implementing water conservation programs, leasing water rights, and developing alternative sources of water supplies for communities, farmers, and fish hatcheries.

In addition, local governments of drought-affected areas can apply for grant funding from the Department of Ecology for drought response projects such as drilling emergency standby wells or helping fish hatcheries maintain proper water conditions for fishes.

According to the United States Drought Monitor as of June 10, western Washington is one of just a few places experiencing severe drought in the U.S. The only other places in the contiguous U.S. currently experiencing a severe drought is southern South Carolina in the Charleston area and in southern Georgia.

Parts of Southeast Alaska are currently experiencing an extreme drought as well, as is the southeastern point of Hawaii’s Big Island.

The U.S. as a whole saw its wettest year on record from June 2018 to May 2019, with various Midwest states also experiencing some of their wettest years on record.

“I think it’s very extraordinary, what’s happening” Marti said. “We are odd ducks here in the Northwest.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor and the Department of Ecology have different criteria for determining drought conditions. The monitor uses hydrological data as well as data on climate, fire, vegetation health, snowpack and surface water supply, among other things, to reach their conclusions.

They rely on experts to synthesize the best available data from these resources and work with a network of more than 450 observers on the ground across the country, including state climatologists, hydrologists and National Weather Service staff,

The Department of Ecology, considers two factors before making an emergency drought declaration: Water supply conditions must be at or below 75 percent of average flow and the low water levels must be projected to cause “undue hardships.”

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