A helicopter drops water on one of three wildfires burning east of Darrington. (Photo provided by the US Forest Service)

A helicopter drops water on one of three wildfires burning east of Darrington. (Photo provided by the US Forest Service)

‘Unseasonably dry’: Drought strikes corner of Snohomish County

The northeastern reaches of the county are in a drought emergency. Other telltale signs of a dry year are all around.

DARRINGTON — The state declared a drought emergency in parts of 12 counties Monday, including about a quarter of Snohomish County and pretty much all of the Skagit watershed.

That watershed includes the extreme northeastern reaches of Snohomish County and stretches north into Canada.

“Our creeks and our seasonal streams are dry,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said. “It is dry and it’s unseasonably dry.”

Rankin said locals are cautious about outdoor fires, but recent conditions “elevate” the awareness. Water supply is not currently a concern, Rankin said, but fires are.

The Mountain Loop Highway fully reopened July 15 and a slew of relatively smoke-free days this summer have hikers and campers flocking to the area.

Projections have said Washington will be at an increased risk for wildfires over the next few months. The Forest Service has already banned fires outside of those in metal rings in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest just a short drive from Darrington. North Cascades National Park, a major contributor to the Skagit watershed, also banned all campfires.

“I just want to make sure that when folks are visiting our communities and our natural spaces that they’re always aware and cognizant of fire dangers at this time,” Rankin said. “All the time, but especially when it’s this dry.”

Three wildfires off Suiattle River Road shut down trails in 2022, wafting heavy smoke into Darrington and the surrounding valleys.

A drought emergency is declared when there is less than 75% of normal water supply and there is risk of “undue hardship.” To the north, most of Skagit County and all of Whatcom County are now in drought conditions.

The state pinned the drought on early snowmelt and little spring rain, with low streamflows also a factor. Warm, dry weather is expected to last through October.

Impacts in some parts of the state include limits on water along the Nooksack River, issues with fish passage and some communities being forced to truck in water for residents.

The Northwest River Forecast Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has current July precipitation in Snohomish County as just less than half of normal. The conditions were similar statewide last month.

Current precipitation for July 2023 (graphic provided by NOAA)

May and June of this year ranked as the fourth-warmest and 11th-driest period in the state since 1895.

Temperatures across the state are also warmer than normal, though some of that can be attributed to the current El Niño cycle, meteorologists have said.

State Ecology director Laura Watson said in a press release the declaration will help deliver relief to affected areas. Declaring a drought allows Ecology to process emergency water right permits and transfers. Water rights in Washington are complex and work by seniority.

Those with newer water rights are forced to turn off their pumps when drought strikes. However, water can be temporarily transferred from a senior member to a junior member. The Department of Ecology is responsible for reviewing emergency changes.

Legislation passed this year in Olympia makes $3 million in emergency drought funds available as grants.

“This drought is already harming Washington communities, businesses and farms, and it’s another sign of the damage that climate change is causing to our state,” Watson said in the release.

The state said there have been curtailments in the Upper and Lower Skagit basins, resulting in “some junior water right holders petitioning for a drought declaration in order to facilitate emergency water right transfers.”

Farmers are feeling the pinch. Bobbi Lindemulder, the Snohomish Conservation District’s agricultural department director, said some farmers who haven’t had to irrigate in the past are wishing they could water their crops.

The conservation district talks with farmers and uses the information they get back to come up with better plans for drought, she said.

“You just don’t go out and get a water right. They’re difficult to obtain,” Lindemulder said. “And so we’re really focusing on soil health practices for moisture control and water, increasing water holding capacity with compost, managing nutrients and those kinds of things.”

They track other things, too. Lindemulder said Snohomish County farmers reported early cases of pink-eye in cattle, which can sometimes be caused by dry and dusty weather. Hay farmers are having difficulties with the heat as well.

“You’re just not getting adequate moisture for a quick rebound on your crops,” Lindemulder said.

For urban gardeners, the suggestion from conservationists? Get a rain barrel.

“It can really help offset some of those water needs,” Lindemulder said.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046; jordan.hansen@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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