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Start saving water, Seattle, utility says. We’re in drought conditions

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Just a couple days ahead of fall 2023 officially starting, there is snow in Washington's mountains and rain expected soon in the lowlands. Meanwhile, the region continues to deal with drought conditions, which have prompted Seattle Public Utilities to urge residents to voluntarily reduce water usage.

The summit at Crystal Mountain got its first snow of the season Wednesday. It was just a light dusting that didn't stick around for very long. Snow also fell at the Sunrise entrance at Mount Rainier this week.

Heavy rain is expected as early as Monday, when an atmospheric river is slated to arrive in the Puget Sound region. That could continue through Wednesday. The region needs it.

Most of Washington state continues to deal with drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Parts of the Puget Sound region are dealing with "moderate" to "severe" drought conditions.

Measurements taken at Sea-Tac Airport are currently about 8 inches short of the normal rain total for the year. Olympia is nearly 10 inches below normal levels, and Bellingham is more than 11 inches shy of what it should have by now. Hoquiam is nearly 20 inches below normal.

Seattle Public Utilities urges water conservation

The dry conditions have pushed Seattle Public Utilities into the "voluntary stage" of its water shortage contingency plan. That means the city is asking residents to reduce their water usage to stretch out the supply.

"We aren't anticipating going to mandatory (conservation). We hope not," said Alex Chen, the utilities' director of drinking water.

Chen notes that, in the past, when the utility has asked residents to conserve water, they have "stepped up to the plate," so mandatory reductions haven't been needed in decades.

"We've activated this water shortage contingency plan only six times in the last 30 or 40 years," Chen said. "The last time we went to a voluntary stage was in 2015. It was a very dry summer. The last time we went to mandatory was 1992."

Chen notes some easy ways to reduce water usage:

  • Stop watering lawns
  • Take shorter showers, avoid baths
  • Only run full loads of laundry
  • Only run full loads of dishes
  • Fix leaking toilets

Chen says this summer was very dry in the Cedar and Tolt River watersheds that supply Seattle's water. That trend is expected to continue into the fall. The National Weather Service is currently predicting that the rest of 2023 will be a bit warmer and drier than normal.

An utilities spokesperson added that Seattle Public Utilities uses computer models to manage the water supply, based on the past 100 years of data. After the utility's reservoirs hit their refill targets in May and June, the models indicated that the system should have been in good condition for several months.

"Then, as each successive month showed continued very dry conditions, the computer model forecasts started to slowly worsen over time," the spokesperson said. "As we crossed into August and September, the forecast models show that if the next several months continue to be very dry, then our reservoirs could reach very low levels. Those model results, combined with the seasonal outlook for hotter and drier weather than typical, due to El Niño conditions, is what caused us to activate the 'voluntary stage' of the Water Shortage Contingency Plan."

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