Dry spell drags on in San Juan County

The dry spell on San Juan Island has continued as the tone of urgency toward the drought in Washington state has increased.

Governor Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency on May 15.

Although local officials assure there’s no immediate threat to drinking water supplies, a 30-plus-year low precipitation level in the months of April and May, combined, means those precaution antennas are on the rise.

“We’re not in any kind of panic mode yet,” Friday Harbor Administrator Duncan Wilson said. “But we’ll be keeping a really close eye on the water level at the lake and watching for any precipitous drop. It’s down a little lower than we would like it to be.”

Conditions on the ground have changed, Wilson said, since May water bills were sent out with an insert reassuring town residents and water-users that the forces at work which prompted the statewide emergency, largely the lack of a snowpack, don’t effect the town water supply in a similar manner and that the water level at Trout Lake was at its maximum. The insert also included a list of steps for conserving water.

Wilson said the prolonged lack of rain combined with warmer-than-normal temperatures can accelerate a drying out of sources that normally help replenish the lake.

“If the level is going down faster than we’re comfortable with then we may consider some water restriction measures,” he said. “Voluntary measures are first.”

The amount of precipitation recorded on Lopez Island in the month of May, .35 inches, is the lowest total in 36 years, according Jack Giard, who’s kept track of weather, rainfall and temperature, at his Bakerview Road home for 36 consecutive years. While April’s rainfall total isn’t the lowest for that month–although close–Giard said that the amount of rainfall in April and May together stand as the lowest two-month total in 36 years.

The amount of precipitation measured in May by the town of Friday Harbor is .30 inches. Due to Washington’s reliance on snowpack for runoff into rivers and general irrigation, the “snow drought,” as some have called it, is affecting farmers and those in Eastern Washington first and foremost. Washington’s average rainfall has been normal, but the issue has been compounded by slow drought aid response.

The Department of Ecology requested $9.5 million in aid in March. The Washington Department of Agriculture has projected a $1.2 billion loss in agricultural-related products from the impact of the drought.

Unlike many areas of the state, San Juan County does not rely on snowpack but primarily on reservoirs and groundwater, in addition to desalinization, rainwater catchment and trucked water.

“The precipitation over the last three months is two inches a month less than normal, a significant decrease,” said Paul Kamin, general manager at Eastsound Water User’s Association on Orcas Island. “But because of the above normal rainfall over the winter, all of the surface water systems are in near normal condition.”

“What I’ve seen that’s more curious is an uptick in demand. We’ve seen a 10-15 percent increase in demand over the last few months [county-wide],” Kamin added. “The first hypothesis is because of drier conditions, people are initiating irrigation efforts earlier than normal; lawns that are unwatered are browning a month earlier, there is also an early increase in visitors due to the warm weather which results in higher usage.”

Kamin said that Orcas Island has not been drastically affected by the lack in precipitation but they will be closely monitoring the water levels until October.

The most problematic scenario would be a drought that lasts multiple years in a row, putting stress on the reservoirs and inadequately replenishing aquifers.

Kamin advises homeowners dependent on a well to monitor their water levels so that they can go into conservation mode if needed.

Although the drought is not directly affecting San Juan County at this time, the Town of Friday Harbor recommends conserving water when possible.

Taking precautions like checking for leaks, watering lawns and gardens with efficiency and installing more efficient shower heads, faucets etc. can help reduce water usage.