Why Seattle Should Care About the Statewide Drought

We’re not about to look like Los Angeles. But things are drying out.

Governor Jay Inslee’s recent declaration of a statewide drought emergency may have left some Seattle residents perplexed. The evergreens are still lush, the views of Rainier are still so often obscured by cloud, and the winter rains came down in their usual bouts. Emergency seems like a strong word to describe a phenomenon that most of us have hardly noticed. But the drought is no surprise to Charlie de la Chappelle, a Yakima Valley apple grower who, as a junior water rights holder, has kept a wary eye on his water sources for his entire farming career.

“If you’re a junior irrigator like me, it’s on your mind the whole time,” Chappelle says. “In the wintertime we’re always hoping it snows, and when it rains instead of snows, you start to worry.”

Rain versus snow: different reservoirs, different sources
Chappelle’s concerns arise from the fact that, when it comes to Washington’s water sources, not all reservoirs are equal. When those of us in Seattle turn on the taps what comes out is stored rainwater—and meteorologists report that Washington did get close to its normal share of rain this year. But the past year was an unusually warm one, which means that precipitation at higher elevations in the Olympic and Cascade Mountains also came down as rain, instead of the usual snow. Because much of eastern Washington relies on mountain snowpack to feed their water reservoirs, lack of snowfall means problems for Yakima Valley farmers like Chappelle. This year, snowpack is now at just 16 percent of normal.

“As that snowpack melts, that’s what gradually feed the reservoirs and rivers—that’s how we keep a nice, continuing irrigation through the season,” Stephanie Chance, of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, explains. The gradual melt-off is necessary because the capacity of these reservoirs is limited to only about half a year’s worth of water. Chance continues, “Because a lot of the snowpack is already melted, there isn’t anything else to melt off into the reservoirs and rivers this year.” Which means: throughout the summer, the rivers could run increasingly dry.

First in time, first in right
And then there’s the fact that not all water users have equal access to the particular water reservoir they rely on, either. While water is considered a public resource, individuals or groups gain access to water via a permit issued by the Washington Department of Ecology. These permits, however, have different tiers, which are determined by when the permit was issued: those that were issued first (held by “senior” irrigators) take precedence over those that were issued later on (the “junior” irrigators).

“Under water law in Washington, the rights of senior water right holders are protected first and foremost,” Dan Partridge, of the water resources program of the Washington Department of Ecology, explains. “The water supply would have to be completely tapped before the senior water rights holders would be affected.”

The Yakima Valley is irrigated by many different organizations, some of which have senior water rights, while others have junior ones. As a grower within the Roza Irrigation District—which holds a junior permit—Chappelle and the 2,000 other farmers on the Roza are among the hardest hit during low snowpack years. Overall, the Roza Irrigation District currently expects to get just 44 percent of their normal water flow this year.

The Roza Irrigation District completely shut down its irrigated water for the last three weeks of May. While some growers started receiving water again on June 1, the latest projections indicate that Roza farmers will get less than half of their usual water this year. They are saving up their supplies for when they will need them most: in the heat of summer. Roza growers still do have a couple of options. They can access emergency wells, or lease water from the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District at the high cost of $500 per acre.

Cash crops
Even with junior water rights, there’s a reason why farmers choose to invest in land within the Roza Irrigation District: given a normal water year, the area provides great conditions for tree fruit orchards. The Roza “was established to irrigate the sloping outer edge of the Yakima Valley,” Stephanie Chance explains. “The slope is important because the air movement protects against frost.” In years past, this has given Roza farmers an advantage. In good years, Roza farmers have been able to be prime players in Washington State’s top agricultural commodity: apples.

Since local farmers began to grow apples here in 1889, the fruit has grown into the state’s most highly valued crop. By some statistics, nearly 70 percent of America’s fresh apples are grown here in the evergreen state. Apple production was valued at 2.18 billion dollars in 2013 – nearly twice that of the state’s runner up agricultural commodity, milk. In other words, when it comes to Washington’s economy, the unassuming apple is in fact a big player – and with China’s market now open to apple imports, many local growers have high hopes that it will become an even bigger one.

But growing apples requires lots of water: about three to five gallons per ounce, or 15 to 25 gallons per fruit. Apple trees that don’t get enough water produce fruit that is smaller and not as sweet, Lee Kalcsits, a professor in tree fruit physiology at Washington State University, explains. The biggest concern, however, is sunburn on the fruit, which renders it unmarketable. Growers combat sunburn with overhead cooling – a process that entails keeping the fruit wet, which also requires water.

“For those of us that have invested in the junior areas, that obviously means we won’t be able to use our acres the same way. We’ll have to switch crops, and reduced the number of people we employ.” Chappelle says. “But the reason we’re in the tree fruits now is because that’s what’s profitable. Switching to less profitable crops doesn’t necessarily mean you can still stay in business.”

Statewide declaration
Inslee’s first declaration of drought emergency, made on March 13, was a regional one that focused on the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Walla Walla Basins. So what made the Washington Department of Ecology extend it statewide a month later – even if those of us in places like Seattle still have adequate supplies?

The decision to get the whole state involved was made not so much for the effects that are already underway (the ones strongly felt by the junior water rights holders in the Yakima Valley), but for the effects that weather forecasters fear are in store for us down the road. If we get the kind of summer that is projected—that is, one that is hot and dry—it will not only mean greater agricultural losses but also create problems for fisheries, and for people who rely on well water. “Fish streams are projected to be lowest statewide in 64 years of record keeping,” Dan Partridge explains—a problem that won’t entirely manifest until fish try to migrate upstream this summer and fall.

And it’s about the state’s future beyond that, as well: not only concerns of a multi-year drought if the same weather pattern extends into next year, but concerns that climate change would one day make years like these be the new normal. And Chappelle thinks that means the state needs to rejigger water storage in order to better match water supply with demand.

“It’s interesting, when you have a hurricane or a storm, the reporters come in and you’ve got this great visual—it’s an image, it’s dramatic, you can write about it, people know they’re impacted,” Chappelle said. “But when it comes to drought, it’s such a slow burn that people aren’t as easy to make the connection between cause and effect.”

“It think the saying that ‘a crisis is always an opportunity’ is right,” he continued. “If we can just be wise enough to use it.”


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