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Summer drought may be ahead

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By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

Bonney Lake might be situated in wet, western Washington, but the signs of drought are mounting around the state. Last year, the city went through an extremely dry summer with water shortages and, if this current dry trend continues, the summer months may spell drought.

"Until March things looked good," said Curt Hart, spokesman for the state's Department of Ecology. "Then we got into this gorgeous weather during spring and it has brought the snowpack down in the mountain areas very rapidly."

For a drought to be declared an area must pass a two-step test, Hart said. First, an area has to be experiencing less than 75 percent of normal precipitation. Second the area must be expected to suffer undue hardships as a result of the dry conditions. Hardships can include crop failures, shortages of municipal water and barriers for fish passage.

"Step one has been met in many areas around the state," Hart said. "Bonney Lake is OK right now. The snowpack in the Green, White and Puyallup rivers are not too bad. The Cedar and the Tolt rivers are seeing very dry conditions right now. North-central Washington and the east slopes of the Cascades are experiencing a severe drop in snowpack and dry conditions. But we are watching the entire state."

The reasons for the dry climate across the state are a mystery to researchers.

"We don't know what causes these weather patterns," Hart said. "No one has a crystal ball. There's always going to be variability. This year we've had a dry spring. Last year we had a dry summer, the year before was a dry fall and in 2001 we had an extremely dry winter. In 2001, we had the last drought emergency and that was declared on March 14. What does this mean in the long term? We just don't know. We've had consecutive years of drought recorded in Washington history before."

Hart encourages people to conserve and use water wisely whenever possible.

The DOE has provided the following information concerning the declaration of a drought in Washington.

Drought declaration

Under RCW 43.83B.405, the Department of Ecology, not the governor, declares drought emergencies by administrative order in the state of Washington. The governor must provide written approval for DOE to issue a drought order. Under state law, DOE must obtain written approval from the governor before declaring a drought emergency.

Drought emergency

Under state law, a drought emergency contingency plan was developed and is maintained by the DOE to help guide state response to drought conditions.

Under that plan, DOE chairs a Water Supply Availability Committee composed of experts from federal agencies involved in monitoring, forecasting or managing state water supplies. The committee conducts ongoing water-supply monitoring and forecasting to identify possible drought conditions as early as possible. If an area is experiencing or projected to experience a water supply below 75 percent of normal, the committee informs the governor's office.

If conditions warrant, the governor's Executive Water Emergency Committee can recommend that the governor authorize DOE to declare a drought emergency.

The Supply Committee reported to the Executive Committee on May 13 that in many areas of the water supply was below 75 percent.

The drought plan

The state has developed a comprehensive emergency management plan to help respond to various types of emergencies. As part of this comprehensive plan, DOE has the lead role for responding to drought. The department has developed a specific drought-contingency program that focuses on maintaining crucial energy supplies, aiding state agriculture, protecting public water supplies, safeguarding stream flows for fish and preparing to fight fires.

The Water Supply Availability Committee

Besides members from DOE, the committee is composed of representatives from the United States Geological Survey, National Weather Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration.

The Executive Water Emergency Committee

Besides the governor's office, this executive-level committee has representatives from the state departments of Agriculture, Ecology, Fish and Wildlife, Health, Military (Emergency Management Division), Natural Resources and Community, Trade and Economic Development, as well as the Washington Conservation Commission. Other agencies and organizations may participate, based on specific circumstances.

The governor's role

The governor's office chairs the Executive Water Emergency Committee, which assesses the information provided by the Water Supply Availability Committee to determine if any significant hardships will result from the below-normal water supplies. If the committee agrees that a drought declaration is in order, it forwards a drought emergency request to the governor. The committee also oversees state response to a drought on an ongoing basis, ensuring everything is done in a timely and appropriate manner.

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com

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