‘Severe drought’ stirs rare concerns in Pacific County

The July 14 drought map of Washington state declares 98.61 percent of the state in severe drought, compared to 18.27 percent a year ago.

PACIFIC COUNTY — South Bend is passing an ordinance that will allow city officials to restrict water usage if necessary, and cranberry plants are browning in fields around Long Beach: It’s been hot in Pacific County this summer.

On July 16, the National Drought Mitigation Center, based out of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, classified Pacific County as being in “severe drought,” along with much of the rest of state except for parts of Cowlitz, Clark and Skamania counties.

While the entire state is considered to be in drought, Tim Crose with the Pacific County Department of Community Development says he’s heard nothing from the state about conditions in Pacific County specifically being upgraded to “severe drought.”

But, he added,” I can’t remember when the streams were ever so low and the reservoirs so low.”

The NDMC partners with various state and federal agencies, but despite this recent classification for Pacific County, the official classification remains what Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee said when he declared a statewide drought in May. This declaration includes all rivers in the southwest region of the state — but most of the concern has focused on the Olympic Peninsula, far north of Pacific County. A rare wildfire is burning in a remote area of Olympic National Park.

In parts of the county, especially north of Raymond, people who rely on wells for their water have had to start drawing from nearby creeks to supplement what they can get from their wells, Crose said. In an average year with more precipitation, they would not have to start doing this until late August or early September, he added.

According to the Department of Ecology, there are 1,224 wells in Pacific County. Of these, 846 are on the Long Beach Peninsula, drawing from a shallow aquifer that is recharged by rainfall.

Many cities in Pacific County say they have talked with staff about what their options are if water supplies begin to dip too low, but, other than South Bend, few have addressed any concerns at the city council level.

South Bend has already opened the inter-tie water pipeline between it and Raymond, allowing more water to be shared with the city. The extra water primarily goes to support canneries in South Bend, which pull a lot of water under normal conditions and are now in the middle of ramping up production.

“That is not unusual,” said South Bend Mayor Julie Struck about opening the inter-tie.

But it is early by two or three weeks. Usually, the city doesn’t have to think about taking this step until August, Struck said.

The city also has passed an ordinance that will allow it to mandate and enforce water cutbacks should the dry conditions persist or worsen.

“We’re anticipating we might have to go that route,” Struck said.

The ordinance outlines different stages of water reductions that the city might require of its citizens, depending on water and weather conditions.

“From a little bit to the canneries aren’t running at all,” Struck explained, adding that this last is unlikely to happen. Canneries would be shut down only if drought conditions reached an extreme pitch in Pacific County.

The ordinance is scheduled for a final reading by the council at its next meeting July 27.

The Peninsula is one of a handful of areas across the state currently experiencing extreme hydrological drought as of July 19, according to a feature of the U.S. Geological Survey’s WaterWatch website that tracks normal 7-day average streamflow compared to historical streamflow.

In other words, our water levels in local rivers and streams are very low right now.

Elsewhere, the low water flow and high water temperatures have caused fisheries managers to close or restrict fishing on more than 30 rivers throughout Washington. The warm temperatures stress fish and increase the chance of bacterial infections in fish populations, fishery managers said. Fishing puts another stress on already stressed animals.

No fisheries have been closed yet in Pacific County, according to the most recent information available from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, but Ron Roler, Columbia River policy coordinator with WDFW, said they made several small changes to the summer seasons due to concerns about high water temperatures.

In the first week of July, WDFW changed the summer Chinook limit for the sport fishery from a two fish bag limit to one fish bag limit. That one Chinook, though, could be any Chinook. marked or unmarked.

Farther upriver, away from the popular lower Columbia River salmon fishery and the Buoy 10 ocean salmon fishery, sport sturgeon fishing has been closed above Bonneville Dam where the fish were dying.

If these warm, dry conditions persist elsewhere, Roler is worried about what it could mean for fisheries near Pacific County and Oregon’s Clatsop County, especially as a blob of warm water persists off the West Coast.

“If you have warm water in the upper river and a warm block down there (in the ocean), it can make things problematic,” he said.

But, he added, it doesn’t take much to get the fish to move and find cooler water. On a recent weekend, the sport fishery was hopping. Then a “skiff of rain” blew through. Immediately, the fish were gone, Roler said.

In her 20 years in Pacific County, Stephanie Fritts, the county’s emergency management director, says she doesn’t remember a time when Pacific County was considered to be experiencing a drought, though she has seen economic emergencies declared here in the past. One could be declared here again if, for example, agricultural and fishing-related industries in the county really begin to suffer as a result of drought.

Cranberry operations, which require a lot of water during harvest time, come immediately to mind for Fritts and others.

“There’s the potential that we won’t have enough water for the harvest of cranberries,” said Kim Patten, Washington State University extension professor based at the Cranberry Research Station in Long Beach.

As cranberry farmers look to irrigate their fields and then flood them, those far from natural water sources may have to wait a while between flooding times as they move from field to field.

“If you’ve got 50 bogs to flood and you have six weeks to do it and you have to wait in-between, that’s a big concern,” Patten said.

He’s already seen the results of heat damage from a flash of hot weather in June: browning, unhappy plants.

“Cranberries are so shallow rooted, you don’t have a lot of buffer,” he said.

Still, the weather could change drastically between now and harvest time in the late summer and early fall.

“Certainly there’s some case for concern,” Patten said, “Is it a disaster? Not yet, no.”

Economic emergencies are handled by the U.S. Small Business Administration or the state Department of Agriculture, she said. Typically, the departments offer affected businesses low-interest loans to help them through the rough times, but these loans have proved to be of little help to Pacific County businesses in the past.

“Small business” in Pacific County is different than “small business” in wealthier or more urban areas, Fritts said, adding that the application process for these economic emergency loans can take months.

“It’s almost so burdensome to go through the process... they don’t have enough operating capital to make it through the process,” she said.

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