June 30, 2015

The Water Super Heroes of 2015: Northwest Reservoir Managers

There are heroes walking among us.

Folks that have made critical decisions that have resulted in sufficient water this summer for people and crops.  Individuals who made hard calls that will allow us to deal with the snow drought of 2015.

Who are these new superheroes?   Local reservoir managers at the the Bureau of Reclamation and the Seattle Public Utilities, to name a few.

The most important agricultural area in Washington State is the Yakima River Valley, where irrigated agriculture produces huge amounts of apples, cherries, hops, vegetables, and other crops.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation controls the Yakima  reservoirs, which store water for use during the summer. These reservoirs also protect the Yakima drainage from floods, particularly during spring when large amounts of melting snowpack flow into the streams and rivers.  The Bureau of Reclamation has an online "teacup" graphic that shows the current status of the 5 reservoirs (see below).

Now let me show you a stunning figure.  An amazing figure.   One that shows you the results of the heroic folks at the Bureau of Reclamation.    Something the media hasn't picked on.   

The red line in the figure below shows the total storage (the sum of all five reservoirs) for an average year by month.  Generally, the reservoirs are kept quite low during the winter so that there is plenty of space to fill during the spring and early summer as the Cascade snowpack melts.  The reservoirs generally peak in June and then rapidly fall as the snowmelt fades and as water is needed for irrigation during the hot summer months.

The green line is the previous year's (2013-2014) reservoir values.  A bit above normal but following the typical annual variation.   
But look at this year (blue line).  Something VERY different has happened.   During November, Bureau of Reclamation managers made a daring decision.  They knew the snowpack was not building up as normal,  that the Pacific was warmer than normal, and that seasonal forecasts were for warm conditions and less snow in the mountains.  They knew that normal precipitation was predicted. So they made a unprecedented decision to begin storing large amounts of water starting starting in late November and continued to do this all winter.  

As a result, by late winter they had saved unprecedented amount of water in the Yakima reservoir system, a total exceeding the normal peak in June.   Specifically, starting in early April they had roughly 50% more water than normal in the reservoirs and during the subsequent months they released water to make up for the lack melting snowpack.  

Today, the last day in June, the Yakima reservoir storage is a bit more than 80% of normal-- a real triumph.  Sufficient water exists to main required flows in the Yakima system into early September, which will allow sufficient irrigation for all the main crops.  Also helpful was a week of rain in May and the decision of the Roza Irrigation District to forgo water deliveries for a few weeks in May.

To put it another way, with  a severe lack of snow in the mountains and warm temperatures--the conditions expected in roughly 2070-- agriculture in the the Yakima basin will not be hurt by much.   In fact, near normal crops are expected, as shown by recent headlines in local newspapers.  This is extraordinary.

Someone or some group in Reclamation deserves a medal.

And here in Seattle, managers at Seattle Public Utility also made some aggressive calls, storing more water than usual in April and May, when rain was still failing (see red line below).  Here is a plot of this year's snowpack above Seattle's reservoirs...pathetic.

And here is the combined reservoir storage serving Seattle--you can see how they maxed the reservoir levels out April.  A problem is that the demand for water is great because of the warm conditions and the reservoir levels are falling quickly.  Seattle does not have any water restrictions right now, but considering the trend, it might be wise for SPU to ask Seattle residents to voluntarily reduce their water usage.

The bottom line is perceptive managers of our local reservoirs can make a huge difference in helping us get through this warm year with little snowpack.  

We are now undergoing a 2070 climate stress test and you know something?   
We just might pass.  

R stands for reservoir


  1. Thus no need for taxpayers to subsidize the destruction of Bumping Lake, part of a project that returns pennies on the dollar. Please see the WSU study.

  2. Love ya Cliff but you're giving too much praise to people who are just doing their job. I'm a lifelong user and beneficiary of the Yakima irrigation district and things are a little more desperate than your graphs show such as record low unregulated flows on area streams and rivers. Extremely high water temperatures and complete depletion of storage going into an El NiƱo winter. Comparing this year to 2070 is not fair when It comes to "banking" water.

    And the risk was minimal. For example, Lake Keechelus. Catching rain from November to February with zero inches of snow at Snoqualmie is not risky. One drives a half mile on I 90 from the summit to the lake. Yes there's bigger drainage like Gold Creek etc but as to the aspect of flooding, I respect the water managers on the western slopes of Casacades more acceptable to extreme precipitation events on a more untimely notice.

    I do agree everyone has done a good job.

  3. I understand this unusually warm winter like the average winter of 2070, but what will the severe weather of 2070 look like, and what do we need to do to get ready for the severe weather of 2070?

  4. Love your blog, Cliff.

    Just a quick question, please.

    Do you ever get concerned that maybe you are ***lowballing*** the heat that we have been experiencing? Perhaps global warming is sneaking up on you and you don't realize it? You continue to attribute the dead lawns in West Seattle in the middle of June to ***normal weather variations***? Do you ever consider that this global warming stuff is sneaking up behind you and you are playing the fiddle while we burn?

    Do you ever get concerned, as a distinguished atmospheric scientist (whom I greatly respect) that you are under-estimating this heat that we have been experiencing lately? Do you ever worry that you are ***seeing a dead canary*** and continue blaming it on bad bird food??

    My lawn is deader than a doornail in hell. And has been for a month. It is July the first.

    Just curious, Cliff.


  5. Thank goodness we have smart people running this important bit of infrastructure. They, of course, will not be properly recognized.

  6. yeah, what dbscience said; and what if next year is even worse than this one?
    and the year after?

  7. Alas, over here in Clallam County on the north Olympic Peninsula we have no reservoirs. Our farmers are being paid to not irrigate from mid-August until mid-September. Our largest organic farmer, who markets at PCC, has planted only 1/4th his normal acreage in vegetables (20 acres instead of 80 acres). We're hoping for the best for our salmon runs. One area of the county has shut off all outdoor use of water. Stay tuned.

  8. We never water the moss, dandelions and a little bit of grass mixed in that passes for a lawn but I've never seen it this brown, this early. The deep-rooted stuff in partial shade is doing OK (hydrangeas, hosta, hardy fuschia), but I'll confess that I am watering the new jasmine & clematis vines a little bit every evening.

    We're not washing the car and I've been setting a timer to hurry family members out of the shower. I think deciding to conserve is important. I'm glad they managed the water well this winter but think it's too soon to say we're in the clear.

    I worry along with others here that this "unusual" year is an extreme example of what will soon be normal. The cool rainy/snowy year we had in 1998 when I moved to the Eastside is never coming back except as a "freak" cold/wet year. I miss it, but I'm moving my decorative plants from things that need a lot of water to rosemary and lavender bushes, which don't.

    I hope the blob commits suicide sometime in the next 24 months and lets us have a cool year, but I'll confess that I'm looking into both solar panels for the roof AND central air conditioning for our house.

  9. Thank you for the education and for pointing out that, had different decisions been made, we and the media would be All Over it, but with excellent decisions it takes a Weather Hero to point them out.

  10. When will we return to a normal weather pattern?

  11. Next year will be tougher if the pattern continues, as reservoirs won't be at healthy levels headed into the fall like they were last year. Also, low tributary flows and high mainstem water temps are going to be brutal for salmon.

    As for the Bumping Lake comment above, Bumping expansion is part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, but not part of its first 10-year phase. Whether that project ever happens will depend on political will 10 or 20 years from now, as well as irrigators' willingness to pay and a fuller impact of its environmental impacts. The first phase Yakima Plan legislation now in the Senate sets an excellent precedent for ensuring that new water storage is actually needed, as it has to be privately financed by the water users themselves. On the other hand, the Plan's floodplain restoration, groundwater storage, land protection, and fish passage will together provide major benefits for fish habitat, natural water storage, and they will make it easier for salmon in the Yakima to adapt to climate change.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

More Typical Spring Temperatures Will Save Washington and California's Cherry Crop this Year

Last year was a cherry disaster for the West Coast and the key driver was the cool/wet weather late last winter and spring in California.   ...