State wetter but far from drought-free

Associated Press

SEATTLE — Melting snow in the mountains and recent rain have been replenishing flows in streams and rivers, but the Northwest’s drought is far from over, state officials say.

Once the snow melts, rivers and reservoirs will drop again. Summer hasn’t even begun, and nearly every reservoir in east of the Cascade range remains well below average.

"The low water levels at this early date could lead to some extremely dry weather conditions this summer," said Doug McChesney, the Department of Ecology’s drought coordinator. "We’re on the downward slide of the peak stream flows for this year. Without significant storms, we’re stuck with some very low flows."

Many Western Washington rivers are showing normal or near-normal flows. In the past week, the Columbia, Okanogan, Methow and Wenatchee rivers rose above drought level for the first time since early April.

Minimum flows were established by the Ecology Department to protect fish habitat and senior water rights.

While rain has helped the supply, the overall state rainfall remains below average — less than 13 inches for the year, recent National Weather Service data shows.

Many of the state’s reservoirs remain hard-hit by the drought. The Lower Granite Reservoir on the Snake River is projected to receive 47 percent of its annual supply, according to the Weather Service.

"It doesn’t look great anywhere," said John Clemens, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey. "Even with the high flows, many streams are still far below their averages."

Both the Sammamish Plateau and Bremerton water districts have asked the state for permission to take emergency action to replace as much as 25 percent of their regular water supply with water from now-closed wells. The districts will have to prove to the state that they will receive 75 percent or less than their annual supply.

So far, the Ecology Department has granted 38 applications for emergency water permits since the drought emergency was declared in March.

Seattle’s two storage facilities, Chester Morse Lake and the Tolt Reservoir, are near capacity after the rapid spring snowmelt. City officials said conservation efforts cut water demand by 9 percent last month.

"We think people have responded, but we are not out of the woods," said Diana Gale, director of the city’s public utilities. "If we have a very hot, dry summer, we could move to some curtailment."

Next week, the Seattle City Council is to vote on a plan to at least double water rates for residential customers who use more than 3,000 cubic feet of water in a two-month billing cycle. People who use medical life-support equipment that consumes large volumes of water, such as dialysis machines, would be exempt, city officials say.

The average home uses 900 cubic feet of water a month during the summer.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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