Water Conservation & Drought
California’s droughts have everything to do with lack of rainfall, but as Washington state law defines “drought conditions” they don't always involve dry weather.
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.
2019: An Enigma
In February 2019 Sequim got a massive dump of snow in town -- but it was not predictive of what happened high in the mountains. Unlike storms from the Pacific coast that dump their snow load up high and leave us in the rain shadow with an attractive dusting, this storm was like the “lake effect” variety that hits Chicago hard after building up moisture over the Great Lakes. Our big 2019 snowstorm came from the north, crossed the relatively warm Strait, and dumped its snow load at low elevations.
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 away and that could mean dangerously low flow conditions in streams in August and September, unless a summer rain shower happens along. 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.
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 to survive.
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.