News

Drought may be harder on salmon than humans

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

This spring's early sunshine has coaxed King County cherry trees into bloom and residents out of their winter coats, but there is concern about the dry season that lies ahead.

On Wednesday, King County Executive Ron Sims explained the seriousness of the situation and outlined some of the county's water conservation efforts just before leaving for a trip to see how dry the Cascade Mountains and King County watersheds are.

On Thursday, Gov. Christine Gregoire authorized a statewide drought emergency and encouraged residents and businesses to use water wisely and conserve so water will be available later "when we may really need it."

Even though Lakehaven Utility District customers in Federal Way probably won't feel the affects of the drought –– Lakehaven depends exclusively on aquifers for the water supply –– many are already self-regulating the amount of water they're consuming.

"Our customers historically have done a really good job of using the resource wisely," general manager Don Perry said. "Because of that, and because of the planning that's been done, we don't anticipate a problem."

Lakehaven draws water from about 20 wells located throughout the city. In addition, a second-supply project to extend a pipeline from the Green River will provide the infrastructure for Lakehaven to switch to surface water during the winter months so its wells can rest and recharge.

The line is expected to be finished in September or October, Perry said, but the utility won't be able to access the water if Green River flows don't pick up substantially.

"Our intent was to get this project online this spring," project manager Craig Gibson said. "The problem is now river flows have already dropped below normal. Even if the pipeline is done, there won't be a second diversion of water right."

Snow pack, which melts in the spring and summer and feeds water to the rivers and streams from which the county and cities draw their water, is hovering at record lows this year. A recent snow survey shows the Green River Basin is only carrying 4 percent of its normal average snow pack, according to county officials.

Though Federal Way residents on Lakehaven water won't have to worry about the drought restricting their water supply, Perry said local officials still are concerned about the impact of the drought in the region.

Whether Lakehaven would sell water to its neighbors is another consideration.

"Our first priority is handling our customer needs. They are the ones who paid for the planning," Perry said, adding he couldn't estimate how much water Lakehaven might have in excess "until we're sure of our customers' needs."

Chris Carrel, executive director of Friends of the Hylebos Wetlands, a Federal Way-based environmental group, said he's concerned about the drought's potential impacts on stream flows, which could make life miserable for juvenile salmon.

"Any time we have a drought situation, it's very difficult for our streams and wetland conditions. And when we talk about streams, we're talking about salmon," he said.

Lakehaven's wells are fed by groundwater, which also feeds local streams. "Too much of a draw on groundwater resources can affect our stream levels," Carrel said. Low stream levels allow the water temperature to rise, which makes the stream less hospitable for sensitive juvenile salmon.

Lakehaven's customer water usage is down between 50,000 and 150,000 gallons a day for the month, or between 1 and 3 percent, despite a 1 percent increase in the number of water customers. Perry credited the unseasonable weather conditions.

"I think people are seeing what's going on in the mountains and they're nervous," he said. "Historically, when Seattle or Tacoma or the government declares a shortage, our water consumption goes down 10 percent, even if (Lakehaven customers) aren't affected.

"If they want to conserve more, that's fine. Our job is to provide water."

Carrel said last month was when Friends of the Hylebos staff and volunteers started noticing low stream levels, which now are closer to where they usually are later in the year. He said some dry areas haven't been dry in seven years.

"We've already seen some disconcerting conditions," he said.

From a surface-water management standpoint, a drought can be a mixed bag, Federal Way surface water manager Paul Bucich said. There's less rain, meaning less runoff from parking lots and streets into the system. But there's also less water in the detention ponds and streams, where collected pollutants can become concentrated.

If there's enough pollution that builds up before rainfall finally comes and washes it downstream, the impact could kill some of the biology in the system, Bucich said.

"The dry winter does concern us," he said. "The base flow affects bugs and critters on which salmon survive."

Bucich discouraged harmful activities that exacerbate the drought conditions and add pollutants in the streams, particularly lawncare and washing cars in driveways. The soap from washing vehicles strips the protective mucus membrane from the gills and skin of fish. "It's like an acid wash," he said.

Until there's more rain, local officials are encouraging the public to conserve and "to be sensitive to what's downstream," Bucich said.

"There's not much we can do about it," he said. "We'll take whatever nature throws."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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