Water Conservation & Drought
California’s droughts have everything to do with lack of rainfall, but Washington state law defines “drought conditions” with specific criteria besides precipitation.
State lawmakers are responsible for setting criteria on the availability of disaster relief funding for any type of emergency. A drought emergency is to be declared when (1) the water supply for an area is below 75 percent of normal, and (2) the water shortage is likely to create “undue hardships” for water users.
California has a meteorological definition of drought and Washington has a hydrological definition. The state Department of Ecology is responsible for identifying conditions that meet the legal definition of drought so its staff closely monitors winter weather patterns and measures snowpack while consulting other state and federal monitoring agencies.
The Dungeness Snotel station is one of four in the Olympic Mountains and 30+ in the state. Data from all four Olympic Snotel sites are generally reported for the whole range rather than one basin at a time.
This makes good sense because the Dungeness Snotel is at about 4,000 feet elevation, more than 1,000 feet lower than the top of the watershed. The historical record for the Dungeness station since installation in 1999 shows that snow is normally melted out by early May, compared to early or mid-June for higher-elevation stations.
2023 - Dry but not as dry as other years
In the Pacific Northwest, snowpack drought is not about annual rainfall or the bounty (or lack) of flowers and spring growth, but instead it’s about the snow in the mountains. The state definition is consistent with this. Hydrologists and other snowpack watchers find limited delight in “unseasonably” sunny and warm weather in April and May, because it means the snowpack is melting early and that could mean dangerously low flow conditions in streams come August and September, unless summer rain showers arrive. For the Dungeness River, extreme low flow is 105 cfs or lower (cubic feet per second) measured at the U.S. Geological Survey flow gage 11 miles up the river.
In late August 2023, the Dungeness River is flowing below 100 cfs, unless it's raining - which we have seen off an on.
Click on the brochure image to the right for more information and ideas for saving water indoors and outdoors.
The connection to streamflow
The undue hardship listed as the second criteria in the state’s definition of drought is that anticipated by farmers who anticipate running out of irrigation water from streams by August, and communities across the state whose drinking water supply depends on snowmelt in streams and rivers.
Hardship for salmon goes along with hardship for commercial irrigators, since they both need ample streamflow. Irrigators may be offered payments from the state to forego river diversions if that would help salmon.
In the Dungeness watershed, stakeholders representing issues ranging from flooding to drought to the viability of both agriculture and salmon recovery have worked closely since the late 1980s, helping to find solutions to shared concerns. Indeed, the Dungeness River Management Team, on which City of Sequim has a seat at the table, continues to meet monthly to discuss current issues.
In 2015, Sequim's reclaimed water played a role in supplementing streamflow in Bell Creek to benefit habitat and farmers who rely on the creek for irrigation supplies. This video tells the story.