State braces for possible drought

A state drought preparations panel is meeting this week for the first time since 2010.

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WALLA WALLA — As areas of California wither under the state’s dryest weather in decades, the question crops up: Are Washington and Walla Walla also in line for a drought?

The signs seem to be pointing in that direction. The state’s snowpacks are all below normal, ditto for precipitation and chances for a big winter storm or two before spring are fast passing.

But although worrisome, “nobody’s thrown out the ‘D’ word yet,” said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the USDA service center in Mount Vernon, Wash. However officials are starting work to be ready if conditions don’t turn around.

On Thursday, the state Department of Ecology will chair the first meeting of the Water Supply Availability Committee, a group that last met in 2010 when conditions also posed the possibility of a drought. Composed of federal and state agencies, the group will begin planning to prepare for the worst and how deal with it, said Dan Partridge, communications manager for Ecology’s Water Resources Program.

“This committee advises the governor’s office on the need for a drought declaration,” Partridge said. Before Ecology can declare a drought condition, there must first be agreement from the Water Supply Availability Committee and the Executive Water Emergency committee as well as written approval from the governor.

A region has to meet two criteria to have a drought emergency declared. The first is that it has received, or is projected to receive, less than 75 percent of its normal water supply. The second is that water users in the area will likely suffer undue hardships as a result of the water shortage.

A drought declaration frees up the state funds designated for drought relief, Partridge said. Relief measures include drilling emergency wells or deepening existing wells, leasing water rights for stream flows, providing pumps or pipelines for immediate relief or other measures.

The last time a drought emergency was declared was in 2005, Partridge said. Ecology is preparing to ask the Legislature for drought-relief money in case dry weather conditions persist into spring.

In regard to the wine industry, the potential for drought conditions “is disturbing, especially from a viticultural point of view, but we don’t want to panic” said Jeff Popick, Walla Walla Community College viticulture instructor.

Abnormally dry conditions can cause stunted shoots and poor cluster growth as grapevines come out of winter hiatus. In order to avoid this, growers have to begin irrigating earlier, possibly as soon as March.

But a potential side effect of California’s drought may be a boost to Washington’s wine grape growers if California wineries have to turn here for fruit.

“It’s certainly possible,” Popick said. “You would expect reduced yields (in California vineyards) and some of those folks will be looking up here to make up for the shortfall.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 93 percent of Washington state is classed as experiencing “moderate drought.” Overall, the entire western half of the United States is looking at a limited water supply in the coming year, according to the first forecast for this year from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

“Right now the West Coast is all red,” NRCS Hydrologist Tom Perkins said in a release. “Early indications are it will be very dry in the western part of the West, but wetter as you travel east. There are some exceptions to this, as New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Utah and Southern Colorado are also expected to be dry.”

“But that could all change by the end of the season. This early in the season — who knows? It always changes,” Perkins said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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