The state's current snowpack and streamflow conditions are similar to the winter of 2005 - when Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a statewide drought in March.
"We are talking about water supply conditions and it's only February - that's the scary thing," said Dan Partridge of the state Department of Ecology's water resources program.
He doesn't expect a
drought declaration this month, but Ecology officials do want to talk about statewide conditions and the Legislature's elimination of $12 million in drought relief funding, Partridge said.
"We hope to get the governor and Legislature to start thinking about possibilities because we may need them to act before they adjourn in mid-March."
Partridge said, based on the latest water supply outlook report, a water supply availability committee will be created to advise Gregoire.
A drought declaration requires a water supply less than 75 percent of normal and a water shortage expected to create undue hardship for some water users.
Droughts can be declared statewide or by county, by river basin or by water resource inventory area. The last statewide drought was declared in 2005.
The state's water supply is determined by the water flow in the Columbia River at The Dalles, Ore., which normally is 107.3 million acre-feet (an acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot).
The Northwest River Forecast Center monthly water supply forecast released Feb. 5 predicts Columbia River runoff to be 79.2 million acre feet, or 74 percent of average.
That would rank the 2010 water supply as the seventh-worst in the past 50 years. It also would mean 10 of the past 11 years have had below average runoff.
The 2005 drought saw the Columbia River's stream flow at The Dalles reduced to 82.4 million acre-feet, or 77 percent of its normal 107.3 million acre-feet.
In 2001, it was flowing at 58 million, or 54 percent. During the benchmark 1977 drought, the river was flowing at 53.8 million acre-feet or 50 percent of normal.
Partridge said there are similar weather and precipitation patterns and warm temperatures are melting snowpack prematurely, duplicating February 2005.
"In 2005, we had 'Pineapple Expresses' (warm, wet storms that melted the snowpack prematurely) that brought on that drought. A 'miracle March' (a month of cold wet weather) also could happen this year."
The "El Niño" weather system is preventing major storms from moving onshore and is sending the rain and cold temperatures south, Partridge said.
"The projections are El Niño will continue into spring, although maybe not as intensely."
Heavy snowfall in the mountains and low temperatures that retain it could make a difference, he said.
The region's snowpack and stream flows are important for more than just the water.
Clallam County Public Utility District buys 99 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketing agency.
Bonneville generates 40 percent of its power from 29 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Clallam County PUD spokesman Jeff Beaman said the district's 2010-2011 contract with Bonneville allows credits for above average snowpack and surcharges for below average snowpack.
Bonneville hasn't announced whether it will apply either a credit or a surcharge to its electric customers, he said.
"If Bonneville did, our staff would analyze it in light of our financial situation and reserves and make a recommendation to the commissioners," Beaman said.
Less surplus to sell
Bonneville spokesman Katie Pruder-Scruggs said the agency is not expecting the lights to go out or power rates to jump.
But the reduced Columbia River stream flow will mean less excess power to sell to Southern California during the summer, she said.
Those "secondary power sales" have averaged $500 million annually since 2003.
Bonneville now projects a $6 million deficit during the fiscal year that began in October instead of the $231 million surplus projected, Pruder-Scruggs said.
So it won't be a lack of supply, just how much the power will cost, she said, adding the 2012 rates will be set in 2011.
"We've been aware of the El Niño pattern. Twice we've had a miracle March; there's still time to build to average levels. We've also worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management to manage the Columbia River reservoirs conservatively. We're holding more water at Grand Coulee," she said.
Reach Brian Gawley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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