Worst Drought Fears a Washoutby Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
This year's drought has punished the state severely, in higher power costs, lost jobs and dead salmon. But in many ways, the impact has not been as bad as predicted.
The 2000-2001 water year, which ends today, was the state's second-driest on record. Yet planning, money, sacrifice and a little luck combined to soften the drought's impact. And meteorologists see no evidence yet that the drought will persist into the new water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2002.
"We just got lucky," said Steve Keller, drought coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who still doesn't believe the drought is over until rains resume in earnest.
The state spent more than $3 million on drought assistance, including purchases of water to increase flows for irrigators and salmon and rescue imperiled fish.
Power managers maximized generation at dams, bought out industrial power users to reduce power demand, and stored water in reservoirs to boost power reliability this winter.
Cooler than normal temperatures, and lucky rains and snowmelt freshets came just when farmers, firefighters, power managers and fish needed them most. Consumers conserved both power and water.
The result: Farmers feared dustbowl conditions that would destroy their crops, but in the end, the state's agricultural production was not greatly affected.
Salmon were hurt, particularly out-migrating juveniles. But adult fish migrating to their home rivers fared better than expected.
Utilities dug into cash reserves and borrowed deeply just to keep the lights on. In Seattle alone, residential customers will be paying 60 percent more for power by the end of the year. Some industries, including the entire aluminum industry, were idled.
But the blackouts feared never materialized, and wholesale electricity prices fell and stayed low this summer, just when the worst of the crisis was expected.
Power managers now forecast reduced risk of power failures this winter because of better-than-anticipated reservoir levels, reduced demand and more new generation than expected.
Effects of drought linger
Whether the drought is truly over is not yet known. That depends on whether the usual autumn rains return.
West of the Cascades, the drought was never more than moderate. The driest conditions prevailed in Central and North Central Washington.
Overall, the state wound up with 70 percent of normal precipitation during the water year, with a 2-foot deficit on the coast, a 1-foot deficit in Western Washington and a 6-inch deficit in the Eastern Washington rain shadow, according to Chris Hill of the National Weather Service's Seattle office.
"There is no strong signal for drought to continue. We are thinking it is going to be a normal year," Hill said. "But it will take more than a year to truly end the drought, in terms of recharging ground water."
The biggest damage was done last winter, when the normally wettest months of the year yielded only half the usual rain and snow.
Gov. Gary Locke declared a drought emergency in March, and Seattle water managers asked for voluntary conservation efforts in April. The call for conservation is still on, as a sound environmental ethic, but was rescinded for weather reasons Sept. 4. By then, local reservoir levels were at normal or above.
The request for conservation was in part to benefit not just this region, but the state, said Diana Gale, director of Seattle Public Utilities.
"We were predicting we could probably get through the year, but in February and March the governor's office was very concerned; here he was declaring a drought emergency and here we were saying we thought we could manage — he didn't think that was a good message coming out of the major media market," Gale said.
"We did up the crisis mentality for the good of the whole state. By the time those August storms came along it was really hard to stand up with a straight face and say we are having a problem."
Gale said the utility didn't cry wolf: Calling for voluntary conservation was the prudent thing to do. "Absolutely it was the right thing to do," Gale said. "If we had the hottest, driest summer ever we could have been in a crisis. It was a wise management decision."
Consumers exceeded the goal of conserving 3.5 billion gallons of water two months ahead of schedule.
Farmers fare pretty well
Farmers, already hard hit by back-to-back years of low crop prices, feared the drought would be the coup de grace. But some lucky weather, timely snowmelt and careful water management helped blunt the drought's impact for many.
"I know there have been some farmers in some areas that have been hard hit by this, but overall, we have not seen that much damage or problems from the drought," said Doug Hasslen, state statistician with the Agricultural Statistics Service.
The hop yield was down only slightly; the wheat yield was reduced, but to normal levels rather than the record production of last year. In spite of damage from rain and hail, cherry growers and wine grape growers each harvested record crops.
Potato yields are lower, because some growers chose not to plant. Utilities around the region offered growers money in return for not planting, to reduce demand for electricity to run irrigation pumps.
The apple harvest, at an estimated 4.9 billion pounds, is one of the smallest in 10 years. That is in part because more than 20,000 acres of trees were taken out of production, with only about 1,250 acres not farmed specifically because of the drought. That doesn't mean farmers didn't suffer.
Tom Carpenter Jr., who grows apples, cherries, grapes and hops near Zillah, estimated that his production was off from 15 to 50 percent overall, depending on the crop.
"It's bad," Carpenter said. "All our crops are off because of the drought. I can find people in every irrigation district hurt. Production is down, and quality is down. We had some severely damaged fruit because we weren't able to get enough water."
The biggest concern for many farmers is what's to come: They were unable to provide the irrigation they usually do to put their perennial crops to bed for the winter with a good cushion against killing frost.
And while Western Washington reservoir levels are back to normal, some Eastern Washington reservoirs face a new water year with nothing in storage. Farmers will need a lot of rain and snow to put them out of danger for next year.
Juvenile salmon hurt
The year was the best of times and worst of times for salmon: Record runs of fish barreled into the state's rivers, only to encounter some of the lowest flows on record. The Wenatchee saw its driest year ever.
For juvenile salmon making their way downriver in the spring, conditions were dreadful on the Snake and Columbia, and many died.
Fish got stalled in the reservoirs, without enough current to guide them downstream. Salmon also went through dam turbines, stunning them and making them more vulnerable to predators, because spills of water to give them a safer ride past the dam were eliminated or greatly curtailed.
That water was stored in reservoirs instead, to boost power reliability this winter. Or it was run through turbines to maximize energy production.
Power emergencies declared by the Bonneville Power Administration canceled the steps usually taken under the Endangered Species Act intended to protect salmon. Those include boosting flows and spills.
The worst toll was taken on the Mid-Columbia, where juvenile chinook were stranded by the hundreds of thousands by low flows and erratic water levels caused by dam operations.
Biologists hope that increased barging of juvenile salmon to the mouth of the Columbia and good ocean conditions will blunt the damage to adult returns down the road. But no one knows yet what the impact will be.
Returning adult salmon had some lucky breaks and helping hands.
"The impact of the drought wasn't as bad as we thought it was going to be, particularly on the west side, where we pretty much dodged it, except in a few spots where we were able to manage it," said Keller of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Department staff and volunteers also pulled off rescues. Blockages to fish passage were eliminated. Emergency fish flumes were improvised from hay bales and plastic sheeting to whisk fish to spawning grounds when streams went dry. Fish were scooped from dangerously warm water in both the Yakima and Elwah Rivers and trucked to safer, cooler habitat.
Water transfers and purchases that added flow for fish also helped, Keller said. East of the mountains, snow melt at just the right time and a few rains that came just as fish were migrating down river were also a blessing.
"It turned out to be better than expected," said Perry Harvester, habitat biologist on the Fish and Wildlife drought team in Yakima. "We had some problems for a couple weeks but we thought it would be much worse."
2001: A Bad Year for Salmon, Steelhead Juveniles by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/5/01
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