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Know the West

Drought drains the West

Dry skies spell trouble for farmers, fish and forests


Alder Lake near Olympia, Wash., is a popular swimming hole for locals, but it won't be this summer. On March 14, Washington Gov. Gary Locke stood at the muddy bottom of the lake, in a place usually under more than 12 feet of water, and announced a statewide drought emergency.

The Northwest hasn't been so dry since 1977, but things are different than they were then: Farms and traditional industries must now compete for every drop of rain and snow with a rapidly growing population, as well as endangered species, such as salmon.

In southern Oregon's Klamath River Basin, farmers won't get any water to irrigate their fields, due to the competing needs of endangered salmon. On the Columbia River, the Bonneville Power Administration has decided to push all available water through power turbines, rather than spill it over dams to help juvenile salmon reach the ocean. And in Washington, aluminum companies can make more money selling their hydropower on the open market than producing aluminum. "We are facing an extraordinary situation that demands the full attention and cooperation of all citizens," said Locke at Alder Lake. "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."

While the Northwest has received national attention for its unseasonably dry weather, the remainder of the West is not looking a whole lot wetter.

Local ranchers and farmers in central Montana became so concerned about the cloudless skies this winter that they hired a rainmaker.

"He brought some big white tubes and he did some gyrations," says Roy Kaiser of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman, Mont. "After he left here, he was headed north."

Apparently, his efforts were ineffectual. Current Montana snowpacks are averaging 60 percent of normal. That situation is echoed across Wyoming, much of Nevada, northern Utah and Arizona and will affect stream flows, reservoir levels and wells across the region. Wildlife managers, farmers, fire crews and recreationists would probably agree that starting the summer with such a low snowpack is a lot like setting out on a month-long backpacking trip without any hiking boots: You might get to the end, but it's likely to be a very uncomfortable trip.

"This is a serious situation," says Phil Pasteris of the National Water and Climate Center. "It wouldn't hurt to plan for the worst."

Pray for rain

The worst likely will hit Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border. When the snow melts off the mountains in the spring, the lake usually rises 18 inches. This year, Tahoe is only predicted to rise by four inches. Due to such scant snowmelt, junior water rights will be called in June, instead of August.

"Basically you're taking two crops of hay instead of three," says Doug Busselman of the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation. "That's a serious economic hit." Tahoe isn't the only lake whose levels are down. Bear Lake in Utah may drop low enough that some launch ramps could be unusable, says park manager Eldon Robinson.

Low water levels are also a concern for Ed Rodriguez, an assistant refuge manager at the Seedskadee Refuge in Green River, Wyo. Each year, endangered bald and golden eagles use the refuge's wetlands as a stopover and nesting spot, but "if you don't have high water levels, the cottons and the willows don't grow and the birds won't have the food or nests they need," says Rodriguez. No riparian trees and forage also means no food for resident elk, deer and moose populations, he says.

If this spring's scant runoff combines with a dry summer, federal officials say, the West could be in for another huge fire season.

Already, the Interagency Fire Center in Boise has hired 5,000 additional firefighters and 20 rookie smokejumpers.

"We are more prepared (for wildfire) than we were last year, but we also may have more areas to be concerned about," says Fire Center staffer Jack Sept. The entire region is dry, he says, and even Alaska hasn't seen a winter this warm since 1819. "When you start seeing the map with red swathes across it indicating drought, it starts making folks uneasy about how we're going to handle this."

The only parts of the West that have gotten a small reprieve from the drought are northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. While the area "isn't really fat water-wise," says Kelly Redmond of the Western Regional Climate Center, "(it's) looking the best with just below average snowpack levels."

But average is welcome news for Santa Fe, N.M. Last month, the city lifted its drought emergency and, for the first time since last June, residents can water their lawns more than once a week and wash their cars.

"We're looking at good supply, finally," says Craig O'Hare of the city's water division. "It's great news, but we're still pushing conservation. Last year was a wake-up call for us that we're living on the edge in terms of water."

Rebecca Clarren is HCN's assistant editor.


    • Roy Kaiser, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Montana, 406/587-6991, www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov;
    • Phil Pasteris, National Water and Climate Center, Portland, Ore., 503/414-3058, [email protected];
    • Mark Svoboda, the National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, 402/472-8238.