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Nervous Farmers, Thrill-Seeking Kayakers Chase Dwindling Northwest Water

Early this winter, skiers in the Northwest were excited. But then after about Christmas things turned dour. The once-epic snowpack is now long gone. In Washington state, it melted down in record time to less than half of average for early June.

And there hasn’t been much rain this spring either. The Cascades, Olympics and Blues are all hurting.

Top state and federal water watchers are already meeting around tables in Olympia.

“We’ve gone from a pretty comfortable situation to a situation where we’re concerned about the conditions in a number of watersheds,” said Washington Department of Ecology Drought Coordinator Jeff Marti.

Federal water managers in Oregon and Idaho said their rivers are starting to drain out as well. They probably won’t run out of water, but reservoirs will be drawn deeply by fall. And, Northwest water watchers are especially worried about rain-fed systems -- like Forks, Washington.

If you’re a Twilight vampire making the pilgrimage to Forks this year -- buy major SPF and some shades. The famous rainforest town is eight inches shy of rain so far this spring. Last year, the drought about took out the Forks city well.

“They kind of white-knuckled it through the summer and actually in mid-September they declared a water emergency,” Marti said. “So this year, with the dry spring we’re talking to Forks and monitoring the conditions quite closely.”

Across the Cascades, not all farmers will get all the water they want this summer either.

“No one likes it.” said Scott Revell, manager of the Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Valley. His farmers will only get about 86 percent of their normal water this summer.

“I describe it as there’s begrudging acceptance,” Revell said. “Our growers, they don’t like it because often it causes them additional expense either in labor or other farming costs.”

Fallow land has to be sprayed for weeds. Less water means more man-power to shuffle what remains around a farm. And according to Revell, cut-back crops are “not a lot of fun.”

But it’s not just farmers and cities that could hurt this summer. Kayakers are rushing out to dip their paddles while the water is still high.

Drew Charness said he’s already been chasing the high water this spring. Several rivers he loves are already past their prime. Not enough flow.

Charness substitute teaches, but just often enough to fill his burly van’s two gas tanks for paddling. On this day he was heading out to Class 4 and 5 whitewater.

“I’m just thinking about running that waterfall,” Charness said. “Yeah, super stoked to run it. It will be a good time.”

Charness said the giant tires on his van are just what he needs right now, to cross creeks running with melting snow.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.