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State declares drought emergency in Whatcom, Skagit counties

Rainfall levels below 50% of normal

May and June this year were among the warmest and driest since 1895
May and June this year were among the warmest and driest since 1895
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

The Washington State Department of Ecology declared a drought emergency in 12 counties across the state, including in Whatcom and Skagit counties, Monday, July 24. 

In Whatcom County, three water systems serving about 346 people near Ferndale are operating on emergency status, and several wells in the Nooksack River basin have run dry, Ecology reported Monday. Water is being trucked in to residents located both north and west of Ferndale.

Severe drought conditions were brought on by early snowmelt, a lack of spring rain and low streamflows. In Whatcom County, rainfall estimates are just 25% of normal in some areas, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

Droughts are declared in Washington when there is less than 75% of normal water supply available and “there is the risk of undue hardship,” according to Ecology’s news release. The declaration allows the state to process emergency water rights permits and transfers, and unlocks $3 million in emergency drought funds to support communities, irrigation districts, tribes and other public entities.

“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,” Laura Watson, Ecology’s director, said in a news release. “Today’s drought declaration will help to rapidly deliver relief to these areas, but we need to also be taking steps to manage water wisely and prepare for a drier future.”

Recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by the University of Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NOAA, puts most of Western Washington in “severe” drought conditions, meaning wildfires are likely to increase, fish are stressed, river water is warm, rationed water supplies are inadequate for irrigators and some harvests are “stunted.” 

photo  The U.S. Drought Monitor shows “severe” drought conditions across Western Washington, meaning an increased risk of wildfires, warm river water, inadequate supplies of rationed water for irrigators and stunted harvests. (Image courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor)  

May and June this year were among the warmest and driest since 1895, Ecology said, with the state seeing just 49% of its usual rainfall. 

The morning of the drought declaration, scattered rain swept through parts of Whatcom and Skagit, bringing some much-needed relief after more than a month without rain. Even so, it’s not enough to restore already-low streamflows, and will not reduce risk of wildfires, the Whatcom County fire marshal warned. 

“The amount of predicted rainfall will not lessen the fire danger to the region,” the fire marshal announced in a news release. “In order for the burn ban to be lifted, the region will need several days, if not weeks, of rain and cooler temperatures. We normally do not get the required rainfall until the end of September or early October.”

That warm, dry weather is likely to continue through October this year, Ecology reported.

“Climate change is making warm, dry summers more frequent, and droughts more severe,” said Ria Berns, manager of Ecology’s Water Resources program. “What we’re seeing this year is likely a sign of things to come.”

Counties on both sides of the Cascade Mountains are included in the drought emergency, which extends through Benton, Clallam, Columbia, Jefferson, Kittitas, Klickitat, Okanogan, Snohomish, Walla Walla and Yakima. 

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