Snowpack down, worries up as spring nears

But Walla Walla and College Place are in good shape to weather a dry year because of wells and water storage.

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WALLA WALLA - As the state's snowpacks shrink, water worries are on the rise.

Warmer and drier conditions over the past month continue to shrink snowpacks across the state, said Scott Pattee, water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. As of last week, snowpack conditions statewide are 74 percent of average, down from 84 percent in January.

The situation is increasingly worrisome to water managers because 70 to 80 percent of the state's freshwater supplies come from snowpack runoff. And time is running short on winter.

"Record-breaking temperatures and below-average precipitation have water managers concerned that there will not be enough runoff to fill reservoirs and supply irrigation and municipal systems to adequate levels this summer," Pattee said in a release.

Only one area, the Olympic Peninsula, has above-average snowpack conditions. In contrast, the Green River basin is only one-third of normal.

The Walla Walla River basin was at 73 percent of normal Friday, down from 89 percent just under a month ago.

Low runoff in the Walla Walla River would affect "pretty much everybody" in the Gardena Farms Irrigation District No. 13, which provides water to roughly 81 users and landowners, said Stuart Durfee, district manager.

"Low water years make guys pull from their wells earlier than usual," he said because the reduced river flows mean less water can be diverted.

However, the situation for irrigators also depends on spring rains, he said. A good, wet spring could ease the demand for water, although it wouldn't entirely make up for the missing runoff.

The city of Walla Walla, which depends on Mill Creek for its surface water, is in good shape to withstand a dry year, said Tom Purcell, operations supervisor for the city's Public Works Department.

Because of the city's aquifer recharge and storage program, where excess water is pumped back into the deep aquifer for storage, the city has "extraordinary resources" to draw on in case of low runoff.

"Our predominant impact will be running our pumps more," he said, and the city has budgeted for that possibility.

Low runoffs would also have little affect on College Place because it draws its water from deep basalt wells, said Robert Gordon, city engineer. A prolonged drought could affect the natural recharge pattern for those wells, but it would be a long-term issue.

Overall, the winter is shaping up to be abnormally warm and dry, Pattee said.

Sea Tac International Airport set a record average temperature at 47 degrees, while seven other cities in Washington had temperatures that either tied record-high temperatures, or were within the top 12 high averages.

The snow cover on the Blue Mountains has also retreated since January, Durfee noted.

"They look a little too blue right now," he said.

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