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Washington drought affects farms, fish, wildlife

Courtesy Washington Department of Ecology

Washington’s dry summer is causing problems for the state’s farmers. Water levels are way down in many rivers and streams. Some who draw from them have temporarily lost their water rights.

Washington Department of Ecology officials didn’t have much good news when they briefed the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought on Monday.

Water Resources Planner Jeff Marti reminded members a dozen counties are under drought emergency declarations. The rest of the state has a drought advisory.

Marti says many rivers are running low, leading to various restrictions on individual waterways. He says parts of the Walla Walla River have run dry. Marti say, in some cases, senior water rights holders are invoking their rights to draw water, leaving many junior water rights holders without water they’d been counting on. He says some farmers are making difficult choices and taking land out of production.

“Basically, they’re sacrificing some crops to save others,” he said. “They were not watering cherry trees, post-harvest. They have concerns about crop stress and reduced crop yields and they’re very concerned about late season water availability.”

Things looked much different last spring when snowpacks around Washington were generally at or greater than normal levels. But one of the warmest springs ever accelerated the snowmelt, while precipitation levels have fallen to lower-than-usual.

State climatologists say the forecast for the next quarter isn’t promising, with an El Niño weather pattern a virtual certainty for at least several months. That means a warmer, and likely drier, winter.

Washington wildlife officials say the state’s drought is also causing problems for some animals, but isn’t yet a major problem.

Megan Kernan, the drought coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, says fish that swim in rivers and streams, in particular, are feeling stressed. Kernan also testified Monday before the legislative Committee.

“We’re seeing things like fish passage challenges related to the low flow conditions. We’re seeing things like increased water temperatures that are stressing cold water fishes, both in the natural environment, but also within WDFW hatcheries,” she said. “Essentially, we’re seeing August-like conditions in early to mid-July, which, if that trend continues, could be pretty problematic for fish and wildlife species come late August and into September.”

Kernan says her agency and Oregon’s fish and wildlife agency agreed to close the sturgeon fishing season in part of the Columbia River until mid-September after receiving reports of unusually high numbers of dead sturgeon. The no-fishing stretch is bounded by The Dalles Dam and Priest Rapids Dam.

She says, because of drought, wildlife in forests and fields are finding less nutritious food and fewer places to find cover from the sun and predators. It’s not a serious situation yet, Kernan says, but if it continues, malnourished animals may reproduce at lower levels.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.