Locke declares emergency

Last week, Gov. Gary Locke declared a drought emergency for the state of Washington, saying it will take a cooperative effort between individuals and state and local agencies to preserve water for humans and fish alike.

"This already is the worst drought in our state since 1977, and it's only March," Locke said in a statement, adding, "We'll probably beat that record soon." The National Weather Service said this winter has been one of the five driest winters in the past 100 years.

Below-normal rainfall amounts have contributed to the current crisis, and Locke said the state's snow pack is half of what it usually is at this time. Less snow pack means less water in rivers and streams once the snow starts to melt.

"For anyone who thinks a major drought cannot happen in the Evergreen State, this drought is real, and the effects are going to be real," he said. "We are facing an extraordinary situation that demands the full attention and cooperation of all citizens.

"We will need neighbors to share with their neighbors," Locke continued. "If a city or a farmer has water that they can do without, then please consider loaning or leasing it to a city or farmer who doesn't have enough. Working together, we can keep our fish swimming, our farmers in business and our citizens from going thirsty."

By declaring an emergency, the state Department of Ecology will be able to give emergency water permits, temporarily transfer water rights and provide financial assistance. However, Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons said his office will focus more on transferring water rights because there isn't any more water to grant additional permits.

Department of Ecology officials said water-rights transfers could be used to maintain river and creek levels for fish, or provide water to communities and farms that need it. And the agency has a $5.1 million fund to help offset the affects of the drought.

Locke said the money could only do so much.

"These actions and this money will not take away all the pain or restore our normal water supply, the problem is too severe for that," he said. "We will minimize the pain as much as possible, but everyone needs to help by using water wisely and efficiently."

With the lack of water comes a higher risk of fire, and after Locke's declaration, the state Department of Natural Resources urged Washington residents to take steps to limit those risks.

Starting April 15, those using "spark-emitting" equipment in forested lands, such as loggers, firewood cutters, land clearers, road builders, off-road motorcyclists and others, will be ordered to follow special safety precautions. Homeowners are also being asked to limit the threat of wildfires by:

  • Asking their power companies to remove or prune trees that could fall and break a power line

  • Making sure their home addresses are posted in clear view and removing obstacles that could hinder emergency vehicle access to their property in case of a fire

  • Locating nearby sources of water that crews can use to fight fires

  • Moving stacked firewood and other flammable materials away from homes

  • Clearing gutters and roofs of tree leaves and needles and trimming back overhanging vegetation

"Fire safety at work and at home goes a long way toward reducing the risk of expensive, disruptive wildfires that damage our forests, fish and wildlife habitat, destroy homes, limit recreation opportunities and threaten public safety," said Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland.

Directives to conserve water, if needed, will come from local governments and utility companies. In North Bend, City Administrator Phil Messina said his staff is monitoring the problem and will take action if necessary.

"We are concerned about the lack of snow pack and the lack of rainfall," he said. "... If the drought continues, we'll be going to [the City] Council, and we'll be asking for probably some voluntary restrictions."

In Snoqualmie, City Clerk Jodi Warren said if the dry weather persists, city staff will look for ways to cut consumption, just as they've cut back electrical usage by 10 percent.

Residents tackle drought locally

Even with the declaration, the drought emergency underlies a more serious question: Can Western Washington, with its rapidly growing population and thirst for water, be home to both people and fish?

Some Preston residents think so. On March 14, the same day Locke issued the drought emergency, they met with representatives from DOE, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Snoqualmie Tribe, the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District, the Preston Community Club, the Preston Industrial Park Water Association, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Bernard Development, Talking Rain Beverage Co. and County Councilman David Irons to discuss the drought's potential impacts on water supply and fish habitat. The meeting was sponsored by the Preston Arboretum and Botanical Gardens and Friends of the Issaquah Fish Hatchery.

One way to cut back on using water is to put off doing some typical summer activities.

"Summer water consumption is dramatically higher than winter use for one reason, and the reason is outside water use - lawn and garden watering, car washing and so on," said Doug McClelland, president of the Preston Community Club. "If we can get people to minimize these uses, then we've done the best we can." Preston uses water from both the East Fork of the Issaquah Creek and the Raging River.

One way to save fish could be to divert water to the wetlands near Preston, which provides critical habitat for juvenile chinook salmon. Marc Horton, a consultant with Economic and Engineering Services, said, "If the groundwater is available, it can serve not only as a valuable part of the drinking-water supply, but can also provide critical flow to wetlands or streams in the same way other reservoirs provide flow during high demand."

Those who attended the meeting agreed to continue to work to find solutions to the potential water shortage, and Susan Bond, executive director of the Preston Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, said it is important to act now before it is too late.

"This drought has the potential to affect us all, to dry up streams and wells, and to kill fish," she said. "We shouldn't waste any time in taking prudent steps to prepare for water shortages in the summer and fall. This meeting was a good beginning."

But even if Washington receives more rain over the next several months, the issue isn't likely to go away.

"It's really a problem that's been building for 30 years or more," Messina said.

For more information, call the Department of Ecology's drought hotline at (800) 468-0261, or visit www.ecy.wa.

gov/programs/wr/drought/droughthome.html. To learn more about the Preston effort, call (425) 222-7118.

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