CHEHALIS - After one of the driest starts to summer on record, this year's drought has dramatically reduced river and stream flows in western Washington. As a result, the Washington Department of Ecology has issued curtailment orders to 93 water rights holders in the Chehalis River basin.
Following early warning letters sent July 21, property owners in the upper and lower Chehalis River basins are now being sent curtailment orders if their water rights are impacted by the low flows. The orders prohibit diversions of water for irrigation purposes from the Chehalis River and its tributaries when flows are below the minimums set by the 1976 water management rule.
Before diverting water from the Chehalis River, water rights holders who received the orders must now call Ecology's hotline first to find out if there's enough water in the river to do so. If river levels at specific gauges associated with their water rights are below the minimum level, those property owners are prohibited from withdrawing water.
Ecology staff will work with water rights holders to provide technical assistance and maintain a field presence in the Chehalis basin to ensure compliance with the curtailment orders. There are nearly 2,400 other property owners in the basin with water rights older than the 1976 rule and are not affected by the curtailment orders.
"It's unusual to see flows this low, this early in the year," said Mike Gallagher, water resources section manager for Ecology's Southwest Regional Office. "We're working with property owners to provide technical assistance and current information during this unprecedented drought."
Washington's drought started last winter with a severe lack of snowpack, and quickly deteriorated into a precipitation drought this summer. The Chehalis basin, especially, experienced a rapid decline in flows coinciding with June's hot weather and almost non-existent rain.
"Even with modern irrigation efficiencies and voluntary water conservation, there's not enough water in the basin to meet the needs of senior water right holders, or to support stream flows for fish," said Gallagher.
More than 400 additional property owners have had water rights curtailed around the state due to drought conditions, Lewis County alone has had 35. Ecology has more information for property owners on its http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/comp_enforce/curtail.html.