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Parched Northwest Raises A Variety Of Concerns


California's drought is getting a lot of attention, but similar conditions are raising concerns in the usually rainy Northwest. Things are looking rough this summer for farmers and communities, even fish, that rely on rivers fed by mountain snowpack. Ashley Ahearn of Seattle member station KUOW reports.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Tourists in shorts and T-shirts munch sandwiches and snap photos of green mountains in Olympic National Park.

BARB MAYNES: Pretty amazing day, huh?

AHEARN: Barb Maynes has been working at the park for 26 years, but she's never seen anything like this.

MAYNES: I'm seeing a scene that looks like it would be more typical to see in late July, maybe even August. There's very little snow.

AHEARN: This year, snow levels here were the lowest in more than 65 years of record keeping. Temperatures were between five and 15 degrees above average. The snow that's usually coating these mountains melts into rivers around the Olympic Peninsula, rivers like the Dungeness.


AHEARN: But there's not much melting out of the mountains this year. The Dungeness is flowing at less than half its normal rate. Local communities are asking the state for funding to deepen wells and build new reservoirs to trap all the precipitation that's coming as rain instead of snow. Salmon are also in trouble. The fish need a certain amount of water to swim upstream.

CHRIS BURNS: It's going to be pretty low this summer.

AHEARN: Chris Burns stands ankle-deep in the river. He works for the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. And this year, he's worried about pink salmon.

BURNS: There's supposed to be 1.2 million pinks coming back.

AHEARN: To this river right here, where we're standing?

BURNS: Yes. That's twice as many as we've ever seen.

AHEARN: Where are they all going to fit?

BURNS: I don't know if they will.

AHEARN: In the past, when it's gotten really dry in the Northwest, fisheries managers have dug trenches inside riverbeds to funnel the remaining water so salmon can swim upstream to spawn. The trenches are usually just a few feet wide, lined with plastic and sandbags. Now, picture more than a million salmon squeezing through that trickle of water to get upstream this summer. And the Dungeness isn't alone. Washington state estimates that salmon in more than 75 percent of its watersheds will need help getting upstream this summer. Now, add...


AHEARN: Agriculture to this water-strained picture. Eighty percent of the water used in Washington goes to agriculture.

BEN SMITH: My name is Ben Smith, and this is Maple View Farm, our fourth-generation family dairy farm.

GARY SMITH: And I'm Gary Smith, and I'm Ben's dad.

AHEARN: The Smiths raise about a thousand cows and calves in the Dungeness Valley. And they have water rights that go back more than a hundred years.


AHEARN: They use the water to grow hay and feed for their cows.

B. SMITH: So we're watering this pretty heavy from the beginning of irrigation season, around April 15, until the end, August - or September 15.

AHEARN: The Smiths have seen dry times before. And Ben expects his children, if they continue to farm, will see them in the future.

B. SMITH: As farmers, for better, for worse, we're stubbornly optimistic. So you know we're going to get through it.

G. SMITH: But you have to have that philosophy of life, or else you wouldn't be a farmer. You have to love what you're doing.

B. SMITH: With a sprinkle of tenacity.


AHEARN: This year, if things get dry enough, the state is planning on paying some farmers not to irrigate their fields. Ben and Gary Smith say they'll use the money to buy feed and truck it in, which costs them twice as much as growing it themselves. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn on the Olympic Peninsula. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.