Skagit County is in for a hot, dry summer and may endure water supply challenges, according to a state drought emergency declaration.
Gov. Jay Inslee expanded a drought declaration Monday to include watersheds in Skagit County and much of Western Washington in addition to the Methow, Okanogan and Yakima areas where drought conditions were declared in April.
The expanded declaration comes as snowpack in the North Cascades shrunk by about half since April, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, and forecasts through August call for hotter and drier conditions than normal.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates snowpack in the Skagit River watershed has reached 42% of normal, down from 71% on April 1.
Specific sites in the watershed now range from no remaining snowpack to 67% of normal at Harts Pass.
Streamflows have also dropped throughout the county.
The Baker River is about 48% of normal and the Samish River about 43% of normal, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
Nookachamps Creek is particularly low at 15% of normal, according to state Department of Ecology data.
The Skagit River, where streamflows are managed via Seattle City Light’s three hydroelectric dams, is hovering about 83% of normal.
The state defines a drought as when an area experiences or is projected to experience water supplies less than 75% of normal.
Despite the Skagit River’s current flow, Inslee’s expanded drought declaration includes the Skagit, Samish and Stillaguamish watersheds, along with others throughout the state.
“Snowpack levels, precipitation, and soil moisture in these watersheds are much below normal,” Inslee’s letter of declaration states. “Forecasts ... indicate a high probability that rivers in these watersheds will experience extreme low conditions.”
Those conditions could mean trouble for agriculture, fisheries and drinking water resources, Inslee said.
The North Cascades National Park Service Complex has reported that Ross Lake, a reservoir behind Seattle City Light’s Ross Dam, is already lower than normal and is forecast to reach as much as 25 feet below normal during the summer.
The Skagit Public Utility District, which supplies much of Skagit County with drinking water, also reported in early May that its Judy Reservoir is lower than normal.
Both Seattle City Light and the Skagit PUD have said, however, that they expect to be able to meet their obligations and customer demands through the summer regardless of drought conditions.
Judy Reservoir, southeast of Sedro-Woolley, gets water from four creeks that run off Cultus Mountain, as well as from the Skagit River.
“There is less snowmelt, so our creeks aren’t supplying as much water,” Skagit PUD’s Gary Toffelson said during a community tour of the reservoir May 8. “It felt like we got a lot of snow, but there wasn’t a lot of snowpack. We stopped taking water from the creeks in early April this year, and we usually go into June.”
Toffelson said the reservoir holds enough water to supply its about 70,000 customers for about 180 days without any additional water going into the reservoir, and the Skagit PUD holds water rights that enable it to continue diverting water from the Skagit River into Judy Reservoir throughout the year.
Seattle City Light officials also said that while recreation at Ross Lake will be impacted this summer by low water levels — meaning restrictions for boating and some campgrounds — the utility is confident it can provide adequate streamflow in the Skagit River for fish.
Still, in light of the expanded drought declaration, Ecology encourages water conservation.
Once a drought is declared, the state Department of Ecology is the lead agency in preparing to protect water supplies, fish, agriculture and hydroelectric energy supplies as well as preparing to fight wildfires.
With Inslee’s declaration and $2 million recently provided by the Legislature for drought response, Ecology is at the ready.
“The emergency declaration allows us to expedite emergency water right permitting and make funds available to government entities to address hardships caused by drought conditions,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a news release.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 71% of the state is abnormally dry and 34% is in a moderate drought, defined as the potential for hot and dry conditions to cause crop damage and water shortages. The eastern half of Skagit County is considered in a moderate drought.