SEATTLE — Officials monitoring lower than usual snowpack levels in Washington state say it’s not time to panic, but they’re nevertheless preparing in case of a possible drought.
The Department of Ecology plans to ask the Legislature for drought-relief money in case dry weather conditions persist into spring. And a committee of state and federal officials that monitors the state’s water supply is meeting next week to start preparing for the worst. The last time they met was 2010, when there were similar concerns about a possible drought.
“Nobody is blowing a whistle yet or raising a red flag. It’s more of a yellow flag,” said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mount Vernon. His office, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tracks snowpack levels using a network of weather stations throughout the state.
The state relies on mountain snowpack to supply water for drinking, irrigation, fish migration, power generation and other needs through the year.
Statewide, snowpack levels are about 50 percent less than average for this time of year, though basins vary, Pattee said. The Olympic peninsula basin is at 34 percent of normal, while the Lower Columbia basin is at 45 percent of normal, Pattee said.
About 93 percent of Washington state is in moderate drought conditions, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The winter has been drier than usual, with ski resorts opening later than usual. But experts say there’s still time to catch up.
“We could have a wet, snowy February and March and people will stop talking about this. It’s rare that it doesn’t turn around,” said Brent Bower, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. “That being said, it is very dry and the snowpack is low.”
The state declared drought emergencies in 2005 and 2001.
“It’s time to get prepared for dealing with a possible drought in the state,” said Dan Partridge, a Department of Ecology spokesman. “It’s not time to panic or anything like that.”
Partridge said it’s early in the season and “we have quite some time to catch up on snowpack. That, of course, would be our best hope.”
The state was viewing similar dry conditions in 2010, and lawmakers approved about $4 million for drought relief, but that money was never needed, he said. Snow and rain in the spring boosted the snowpack and reduced the threat of a drought.
Ecology isn’t sure yet how much it plans to ask for, but it needs legislative action before the short 60 day-session adjourns in early March, Partridge said. The money would be used to make loans and grants on such things as leasing water rights or drilling emergency wells or deepening existing ones for cities, farmers or fish hatcheries.
The state’s water supply committee is meeting Thursday, and will meet regularly. That group is convened when there appears to be persistent dry conditions in the state that could eventually require a declaring a drought.
Ecology would declare a drought at the direction of Gov. Jay Inslee. Under state law, a drought is declared if an area receives or is projected to receive less than 75 percent of normal water supply and water users in those areas are likely to incur undue hardship because of the shortage.