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1988 Could Bring Another Drought To Northwest, Experts Say

January 24, 1988

SEATTLE (AP) _ The new year is starting to look like a repeat of drought-plagued 1987 for much of the Pacific Northwest, say experts, and the consequences could be water rationing and losses to farms and fisheries.

″The rate things are going, we could be in for a long period this summer of water rationing,″ Lee Krogh, a National Weather Service forecaster, said of the prospects for Seattle and Tacoma.

While local conditions vary, the entire region is running behind in precipitation and snowpack, critically important for the spring runoff that renews reservoirs for irrigation, power generation and drinking water and provides passage for migrating salmon and steelhead.

″Last year was 70 percent of normal (for Columbia River watershed streamflows). What we’re forecasting this year is about the same,″ said Doug Speers, who heads the Army Corps of Engineers’ hydrological engineering group in Portland, Ore.

Many reservoirs serving cities and irrigation districts are continuing to fall behind after nearly running dry because of last year’s drought. Due to low water conditions, many reservoirs need excess precipitation this spring even to begin recovering.

In Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades, water levels of reservoirs for municipal use lag well behind normal, despite boosts from rain storms in December and January.

In the Texas-sized watershed supplying the Columbia River, streamflow ranged from 87 percent of normal in the north, at Mica Dam reservoir in British Columbia, to 62 percent for the Snake River at Lower Granite Dam.

While the Columbia Basin irrigation area was in fairly good condition because of the huge capacity of Columbia reservoirs and a water conservation policy last year, Yakima Valley irrigators and fisheries managers face the prospect of an exceedingly dry year, said Krogh.

The five reservoirs on the Yakima River, which lies to the west of the Columbia, were depleted at the end of last year, he said, and are slow to refill. If there isn’t sufficient water to refill the reservoirs this spring, ″your account is dry, literally and figuratively,″ Krogh said.

Bob Lee, assistant to the Washington state agriculture director, said figures compiled by the Kittitas County extension agency showed that if the water supply is 52 percent of normal this year, a 60,000-acre area studied that normally produces crops worth $20.6 million would suffer a loss of $12 million.

Irrigation water is in short supply on the Snake River in eastern Washington, with tributaries experiencing stream flows as low as half of normal.

If the outlook of 70 percent of normal water for the January through July period prevails, 1988 will be the 11th driest year in the 63 years records have been kept for the Columbia watershed, said Bob Reed, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.

BPA markets hydroelectric power from federal dams on the Columbia River system, and the water shortage has cost it as much as $1 million a day in lost sales.

Krogh said immediate prospects to attain even the 70-percent-of-normal figure were not good, since in effect the region already is behind.

Even if normal precipitation falls through July, many reservoirs will remain less than filled, added Speers. That would affect recreation and further restrict sales of electricity.

But there will be enough electricity generated to meet the needs of the Northwest, said Reed.

Speers said a water shortage on the Columbia also would affect fisheries. Water is required during the late spring to flush fingerling salmon and steelhead down the Columbia to the sea.

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