Even as punishing droughts pile up on the Western United States, the Puget Sound region’s water supply remains in good shape. But will that always be the case?

In 1992, the Puget Sound region was smacked by a drought. Precipitation was below average that year, but the real blow came from record heat that zapped snowpack and reduced river flows to a trickle. Droves of salmon perished before they could reach spawning grounds, and municipalities issued mandatory watering cutbacks for the first, and only, time in the area’s history. Conservation became a public endeavor; vigilant residents turned in neighbors who didn’t let their lawns go brown.

Chuck Clarke is director of the Cascade Water Alliance and previously led Seattle Public Utilities. “Other cities are talking (desalination) plants — we’ve never had to do that,” he said. Photo by Rachel Coward

Chuck Clarke is director of the Cascade Water Alliance and previously led Seattle Public Utilities. “Other cities are talking (desalination) plants — we’ve never had to do that,” he said. Photo by Rachel Coward

The next year, residents again began using more water. But instead of returning to pre-1992 use levels, folks became more vigilant about water conservation, a trend that has continued to this day. In 1991, before the drought began, just over 1.1 million Seattle Public Utilities customers used 160 million gallons of water per day. Today, more than 1.3 million of those customers use around 120 million gallons of water per day. Area water consumption is now less than it was in the late 1950s.

“For decades, population growth and water demand were linked … it was almost a one-to-one relationship,” said Chuck Clarke, CEO of the Cascade Water Alliance, which manages much of the Eastside’s water. “A full disconnect occurred (after 1992). Population continued to grow, and it grew about 25 percent through a couple years ago. In that time, overall demand dropped about 30 percent.”

As the greater West battles wave after wave of punishing droughts, all the while debating antiquated water policies that exacerbate shortages, the Puget Sound region appeared to be one that would escape relatively unscathed. But 2015 saw another drought, one arguably worse than the 1992 scorcher. By June, the Cascade Range was virtually snow-free. The heat wave — the new warmest year on record — reignited the discussion of how the area should handle its freshwater resources, but it also sparked a conversation about how climate change might make things worse.

Thanks to the region’s conservation bent that began in the 1990s, the area’s water supply is projected to be fairly safe — the 2015 drought didn’t incite mandatory water cutbacks because residents were already using less water than before. Residents of Seattle and most of the Eastside drink from the Cedar River, the upper watershed of which is owned and rigorously protected by Seattle Public Utilities. Short rivers like the 340-mile Cedar can be more fickle — they catch water from a smaller geographic area, as opposed to larger ones like the Columbia — but they also give utilities complete control of water machinations, thus allowing complete management.

Photos courtesy NASA Earth Observatory

Photos courtesy NASA Earth Observatory

Every six years, the utility reassesses its supply and demand forecast. The latest such report was in 2013. The firm yield, or the amount of water reservoirs can supply during historical droughts, of SPU’s system is 172 million gallons per day on average; that’s the number the utility is confident it can maintain in the worst drought years on record. In its latest demand study, only extreme population growth and abandonment of conservation measures would lead demand to reach that threshold by 2060. The utility predicts average daily demand will hit 137 million gallons in 2060.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, both on the supply and the demand side,” said Alex Chen, director of water planning at Seattle Public Utilities. On the demand side, SPU uses city and county forecasts to assess possible population growth. The utility’s latest estimate expects conservation measures — tiered water pricing, more efficient appliances, and more water-conscious use from residents — will continue to reduce per capita demand through about 2045. “Generally speaking, (demand) will stay flat for the next couple decades, until new people start to out-compete less water per person,” Chen said.

Data source: Seattle Public Utilities

Data source: Seattle Public Utilities

The Eastside currently purchases most of its water from SPU, but that could change beginning in 2024, when CWA’s block share of Seattle water is scheduled to shrink from 30.3 million gallons per day to 5.3 million in 2064. Unless CWA re-ups its wholesale agreement with Seattle, that share will be replaced by water from Lake Tapps, in Pierce County.

Regional water supplies appear secure, but water management in this rainy region is more nuanced than simply keeping reservoirs full come summer.

Water managers here deal with large annual precipitation swings: Less than an inch of rain usually falls in July, while 6.6 fall in November. “So, to keep up with our demands for people and fish, we draw down the reservoirs during the summer. In October, atmospheric rivers and floods will start again. This has happened without fail every year in our recorded history.”

But 2015 challenged that notion. So little precipitation fell as snow that SPU had to begin filling reservoirs earlier than usual, and summer was far hotter than expected, which led to rapid drawdowns. Mandatory cutbacks weren’t put in place, but many municipalities asked their residents to cut water use by 10 percent. SPU’s latest projection assesses fluctuations in demand; what wasn’t considered was a dip in firm yield if years like 2015 become more common.

Data source: University of Washington

Data source: University of Washington

Many have billed 2015 as a preview of the future, but a more likely scenario is that the 2015 and 2016 water years — a “wet drought” with little snowfall followed by a winter with record precipitation and above-average snowfall — together paint a better picture of the variable water cycles that await us. According to climate models compiled by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, average annual temperatures in the region could rise by 6 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. While significant changes in annual precipitation amounts are not expected, that warming will dramatically decrease snowpack; CIG projects average snow reserves on April 1 will fall 23 to 29 percent by the 2050s.

“We tend to get our precip in the winter, and the snow is our bank account that stores it from when it arrives to when we need it,” said Amy Snover, director of CIG. “In the absence of adjustments to water management, that means a lot more trouble providing for all the uses in the summer low-flow period.”

Data source: Seattle Public Utilities

Data source: Seattle Public Utilities

SPU factors climate change into its forecasts, and, in its 2013 assessment, the utility found that tweaking its reservoir management will meet demand even at the high end of warming forecasts. But that analysis looks broadly at supply and demand, not the volatile day-to-day shifts a warmer climate is expected to instigate. The CIG estimates heavy rain events could increase 22 percent by 2050, thus complicating the flood-mitigating role of reservoirs.

Unpredictability is risk for water managers. While filling up reservoirs early during a drought year is good preparation for summer demand, it compromises flood control; if a major rainstorm hits while a reservoir is being filled, it might be impossible to catch excess runoff and prevent downstream flooding. Furthermore, state law requires that rivers have enough in-stream flow for spawning salmon, and hydropower becomes less viable if too little water is being released from reservoirs to spin the turbines.

OURS WASN’T THE only area in the West wracked by drought in 2015, globally the warmest year in recorded history. As most of the West battled water shortages, California in particular fell further into drought. Severe droughts affect the economy. University of California, Davis researchers say dry weather cost that state $2.7 billion in 2015, largely from lost agricultural productivity; the Washington Department of Agriculture pegged farm losses here at $335 million, and that was only accounting for select crops. When the economic losses start piling up, economists start talking, and many agree on the solution to the West’s broader water woes: water markets.

Throughout the West, laws dictating water rights are centuries old and were designed to promote growth, not to conserve a finite resource. Water policies can vary wildly from state to state, regardless of watershed; the Columbia River’s water is spread among some 400 municipalities, farms, and other bodies. Older rights are given precedent, and most are use-it-or-lose-it, which all but prevents conservation during lean times.

“Right now, water isn’t really treated as an economic good,” said economist Sandra Archibald, dean of the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington. “Water in the United States is owned by the public, so legally, a water right is only a use right. It’s like you don’t really own your shoes; you just have a permit to use them. So to become an economic good, water has to be valued like an economic good, meaning buyers and sellers are willing to pay for it. And it’s hard to sell what you don’t own.”

A water market that allows rights-holders to more freely sell their water, economists say, would allow prices to be set by supply and demand, as opposed to more artificial rates set by utilities, or free when it comes to well water. The ability to transfer water would direct it where it’s needed most; a farmer, for instance, could fallow thirsty crops during a drought and sell her water allotments to other farms or to a nearby city.

“There’s a real disjuncture between the freshwater supply and prices of freshwater,” said Sheila Olmstead, a University of Texas at Austin economist who studies water. “If it were like any other good in which firms and households and farms in a particular region paid the market value for water that they used, that would be an appropriate economic signal, and consumers would be making marginal decisions like what technology to use and where to locate that would reflect water scarcity.”

Instead, water is subsidized in most arid regions, a longstanding practice meant to spur early settlement and development in the West. Thus, residents of the desert Southwest routinely have some of the cheapest water bills in the nation, and thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa are grown in Arizona. When extreme scarcity does kick in, regulation, rather than market pricing, is the tool of choice for utilities to limit consumption. Olmstead contrasts water regulations like Seattle’s 1992 measures with heating-oil shortages in the Northeast: When oil’s running low, prices rise, and customers adjust accordingly.

The Cascade Water Alliance, which manages much of the Eastside’s water supply, owns Lake Tapps (above, outlined in red) in Pierce County. If contracts are not renegotiated with Seattle Public Utilities, Lake Tapps could eventually become the Eastside’s primary source of drinking water. Photo courtesy Cascade Water Alliance.

The Cascade Water Alliance, which manages much of the Eastside’s water supply, owns Lake Tapps (above, outlined in red) in Pierce County. If contracts are not renegotiated with Seattle Public Utilities, Lake Tapps could eventually become the Eastside’s primary source of drinking water. Photo courtesy Cascade Water Alliance.

Most domestic discussion and study of water markets has focused on the arid Southwest, but relatively wet areas like Seattle also could benefit. Water transactions can pay for infrastructure, something the Puget Sound region could benefit from as utilities from Tacoma to Everett discuss linking water systems to help spread the resource during lean times. Selling water at market value, too, could hasten conservation measures, even in relatively water-stingy areas like the Eastside.

“There’s a regional view that’s starting to evolve to optimize all the water in the region, a little more like electricity,” CWA’s Clarke said. “If you look to the future and you are able to inter-tie Everett and Cascade and Seattle and Tacoma, all of a sudden you are able to optimize the availability of water, and you can optimize revenue to utilities, so you’re not left with stranded assets.” A system like this could work in the Eastside’s favor. If, say, Everett or Seattle has a surplus of water in the 2020s, when Cascade can renegotiate its block contract with Seattle, then Clarke said it could purchase that water rather than develop a costly pipeline system from Lake Tapps.

Unlike in the Southwest, most economists see a water market in the Seattle area as a perk that could streamline water management, not a need to prevent catastrophic economic or environmental decline. But assessing how water is valued now could be a valuable measure should climate change jeopardize the area’s freshwater supply, or if today’s boomtime extends and swells the population beyond sustainable levels.

Nevertheless, there’s room to grow. “When I was with Seattle (Public Utilities), we’d have people up to the 49th floor,” said Clarke, who led SPU before joining Cascade. “They’d look to the left and see Lake Washington, then to the right and see the Sound. All these other cities are talking (desalination) plants — we’ve never had to do that. We have so many untapped sources.”