Yes, the weather was beautiful last week, but waaaaaaay too hot. It was 78 degrees on my back porch in the shade. Sorry to be a Cassandra, folks, but this should not be happening in mid-April. We are in for a doozy of a drought this year all up and down the West Coast, even if we do have a few days of rain here and there.
The West has always been dry land: without irrigation it’s really only a desert with wet episodes that cycle every few years to keep the grasses and tumbleweeds happy. Climate change has simply exacerbated that. There are already burn bans all around the Pacific Northwest.
According to Tom Fields (Oregon Department of Forestry, fire prevention manager), “We’re already ahead of last year in terms of fire danger. Right now, we’re looking at about 85 fires since Jan. 1, compared to the average of 22 fires this time last year — so we’re four times the number of fires that we normally see here in the spring. And of those 85 fires, more than half resulted from outdoor debris burning.” Fields recommends you tarp your piles now and wait until this fall to burn.
There is a current burn ban on the Peninsula until April 22. (For up-to-date information on Pacific County: fortress.wa.gov/dnr/protection/firedanger)
Snowpack and surface water
One saving grace may be our Washington snowpack. According to Colin Tiernan (Spokane Spokesman-Review), “Much of the Cascade Range has had an especially wet winter, with snowpack more than 30% above average — the Cascades may even have the best snowpack in the country right now.”
Our snow accumulation could give us a reasonable amount of surface water, but don’t cheer too soon. It may not suffice to counter the hotter than average temperatures predicted for these summer months. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to start daily watering of my garden much earlier than I ever remember. Our golden daffs along Bay Avenue put the brakes on a week earlier than last year. They’ve handed the baton off to the Kwanzan (and Montmorency) cherries and late blooming Asian pears. Apples will bloom soon. But we’re still too early in the season to gauge what the harvest will look like. (Meanwhile, Yakima Valley farmers are girding for the drought.)
My pandemic tribe is taking a road trip in 10 days — heading south right into the center of drought-lands. Thank goodness I have a beloved friend willing to water while I’m gone because my Musa Basjoo banana is always thirsty.
That puts me in mind to wonder about our Peninsula water situation. How will we handle all the new folks moving in? Does anyone know the state of our aquifer? I posed a couple questions to north end commissioner, Frank Wolfe, who writes, “The seasonal changes and general fragility of our limited water supply on the Peninsula are a good part of the basis for our construction planning regulations. The Department of Community Development enforces the regulations that are in place to safeguard our aquifer. There is no doubt that the Peninsula has a finite carrying capacity in this regard.”
“The Peninsula is a sand bar, surrounded by salt water,” Frank continues. “The sand goes down as much as 600 feet to bedrock. The presence of fresh water in the sand — called an ‘island aquifer’ — keeps the salt water displaced. If a time came when this fresh water ‘lens’ was depleted to a point where salt water could infiltrate into the sand, the shallow wells that most of the folks on the Peninsula depend on for water could become unusable. This salt water intrusion would generally be irreversible, at least in any reasonable time frame.”
“Our winter rains replenish this aquifer. The county operates a system of surface water drainage features that gather the rain water and route it to several Aquifer Recharge Areas in the central part of the Peninsula. The water level in these areas can be somewhat above the surrounding local ground level, forming lakes and wetlands that allow water to percolate into the underlying soil. If operated properly, these recharge areas maintain a water level slightly higher than local ground level. This can be a difficult dance to perform, allowing the water to sit in areas where it can percolate down, recharging the aquifer, without causing flooding on the surface. The difference is only a few inches in places. Mother Nature isn’t always cooperative with providing slow, steady rain to make this work easily. Occasionally, the rain falls as a heavy downpour causing short term minor local flooding.”
“Some have commented that our planning regulations are unnecessarily restrictive. But they are well vetted at the local and state levels and are intended to protect the investment our residents have made here. Should our aquifer become compromised, the only alternatives are unthinkably expensive.”
“As to measuring the aquifer’s capacity, that’s both difficult and unproductive. The best measure is probably the depth of the surface water in the mid-peninsula wetlands. Assuming the water table is at or near the surface in the inland lakes, that means you have some feet (10? 15?) of fresh water above sea level. It’s the static pressure of the weight of this standing water in the inland lakes that ‘pushes’ out on the salt water on each side of the Peninsula.”
“It’s actually a staggering amount of water that we are talking about. Long Beach, Surfside and Ocean Park water systems have deep wells. Ilwaco has a reservoir in the hills behind Chinook. My well [in Nahcotta] is 25 feet deep and less than 100 feet back from the high-tide line on the shore of the Bay.”
I asked the unpopular question of what we would do as a community if (when?) we identified a dangerous drop in our water level. What if drought conditions continued? Would we all be willing to reduce our water use substantially until Mother Nature could refresh our aquifer? Shouldn’t we already be thinking about reducing our water usage as the climate changes? As someone who spent a good part of her professional life measuring aspects of the environment, not knowing the actual capacity of our aquifer unsettles me. What if we, or future inhabitants, did deplete it?
Frank offers this, “It might be possible to identify a water source in the hills to the east of Willapa Bay, but building a dam, a large pipeline to bring the water to the Peninsula, and a distribution system to supply every home and business on the Peninsula is beyond my ability to even guess.”
CBS journalist Jeff Berardelli’s April 12 article is ominously titled “Western U.S. may be entering its most severe drought in modern history.” So let that roll around in your head. Berardelli writes, “Extreme drought across the Western U.S. can seem a bit like a broken record, with some scientists saying the region is on the precipice of permanent drought. That’s because in 2000, the Western U.S. entered the beginning of what scientists call a megadrought — the second worst in 1,200 years — triggered by a combination of a natural dry cycle and human-caused climate change.”
So, this summer we’re going to see a combination of hot temperatures, dry soil conditions, and an unusually dangerous fire season. The U.S. Drought Monitor says 60% of the West will suffer severe, extreme or exceptional drought (droughtmonitor.unl.edu). It will be especially bad in the southwest where early spring temperatures are already approaching the 90s.
We’re likely to fare better in the Pacific Northwest — our snow may partially save us this year — but I predict we’re going to see an onslaught of climate refugees seeking our cool Peninsula ocean breezes. Be ready, folks.