Our water supply is finite — even in the Pacific Northwest where it can rain for days-on-end some parts of the year. When July rolls around, however, the rain almost completely stops for several months. We rely on mountain snow from the wetter months and groundwater stores to feed the rivers and creeks that people, farms, and spawning salmon rely on.
Each year, regardless of official drought declarations, the Nooksack River tributaries become water-scarce in the summer and early fall when rain tapers off and when farms, fish, and people need it most. And this type of drought is likely to become more commonplace as the climate heats up and Whatcom County’s population rises. We need to prioritize solutions like efficient water use in the summer and fall, so a portion of the Nooksack’s water can stay in the streams to keep them cool and flowing for salmon.
The first six months of 2019 were the eighth driest on record for Washington since 1895, with close to half the state included in an official drought emergency after a record-breaking dry, hot spring and very little snow in the mountains. The Nooksack River basin was part of the drought declaration — a stark reminder that we’re not immune from water worries.
In those gorgeous summer and early fall days, our rivers and creeks can even have too little water for people to move in kayaks or canoes, let alone salmon returning to spawn. It’s also, unfortunately, the time of year people use the most water, and nearly half of Washington was in a drought emergency in summer 2019 as well as 2015. Take a deep dive into those two droughts.
Balancing water use for a climate-changed Washington
Climate change means the extremes will get more extreme — less water in the already-dry summers, and excess water from winter storms that can flush away or salmon eggs. The heat and wildfire smoke of late summer is when lack of water is most palpable, but we cannot let ourselves forget about water resources for the rest of the year. We need to take a hard look at how, where, and when Whatcom County is using water. Status quo is no longer an option.
Whatcom County’s population is anticipated to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years. We learned from a survey of hundreds of rural Whatcom County residents that people in rural Whatcom County are already experiencing water shortages, their wells running dry in the late summer. Aquifers are dropping in the City of Ferndale. These are our friends and neighbors; for them (as well as the salmon and Tribal communities who depend on them), this is not a problem of the future — it is their current reality.
How is water distributed among those who need it in Washington? Get the basics with this three-minute read by our policy analyst Karlee Deatherage.