Washington State Is In A Drought ‘Unlike Any We’ve Ever Experienced’


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about his statewide drought emergency as state ecology director Maia Bellon looks on, Friday, May 15, 2015, in Olympia, Wash.

Citing historically low snowpack, falling river levels, and rising temperatures, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) declared a statewide drought emergency for Washington on Friday.

“We’re really starting to feel the pain from this snowpack drought. Impacts are already severe in several areas of the state,” Inslee said. “Difficult decisions are being made about what crops get priority water and how best to save fish.”

Sectors that rely heavily on melting snowpack, like agriculture and wildlife, are expected to be hit hardest by the drought, with the Washington Department of Agriculture anticipating $1.2 billion in crop losses this year.

Statewide, snowpack levels are currently 16 percent of normal, ten percent lower than the last time a statewide drought emergency was declared in 2005. Of 98 snow sites measured at the beginning of the month by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), 66 were snow free — 11 of them for the first time in history. Along with record low snowpack, the NRCS found that 17 of 34 long-term measuring sites recorded their earliest peak on record, occurring on average 48 days earlier than normal.

“This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced,” Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said. “Rain amounts have been normal but snow has been scarce. And we’re watching what little snow we have quickly disappear.”

A map showing drought conditions in Washington state as of May 12, 2015.

A map showing drought conditions in Washington state as of May 12, 2015.

CREDIT: National Drought Mitigation Center

Bellon’s department has called for $9.5 million in funding for drought relief, to be split between things like agricultural irrigation projects, municipal emergency funding, salmon and trout protection, and conservation education. To preserve remaining water resources, some irrigation districts in the Yakima Basin — the state’s most productive agricultural region — are shutting off water deliveries to farmers for weeks at a time. State officials are hoping to minimize agricultural losses with a kind of triage, according to the New York Times, diverting water to high-value crops like cherries or wine-grapes while allowing certain seasonal crops to go fallow.

For the state’s salmon and trout populations, dwindling snowpack and low stream flows hinder their migration to spawning grounds. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that 78 percent of the state’s streams were running below normal, with some reaching historic lows. Some wildlife managers are planning on creating temporary channels to help the fish navigate low waters, but others might have no choice but to trap the salmon and trout and move them to cooler spawning grounds upstream.

“We’re working hard to help farmers, communities and fish survive this drought,” Bellon said.

The drought is also expected to contribute to a particularly volatile wildfire season, as wildfire managers expect the season to begin earlier and at higher elevations than normal. Last year, Washington experienced the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which burned an area 4.5 times the size of Seattle. Even before the drought emergency was declared, forecasters predicted that below-average precipitation might translate into an especially difficult wildfire season throughout much of the Northwest.

Areas like the Olympic Mountains and the Cascades, which are usually some of the wettest areas of the state, are especially dry this year, providing wildfires with fuel necessary to turn a routine burn into a blaze.

“There’s a lot of heavy fuel out [on the Olympic Peninsula],” Peter Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, told the Seattle Times. “The stream flows are going to be low, and barring a miracle, that landscape’s going to be bone dry.”

Cities like Seattle or Tacoma, which rely largely on rain-based reservoirs, aren’t expected to bear the brunt of the drought. In addition to being lucky with rainwater, Inslee said, urban water systems have been investing in water storage and collection, which help urban areas weather periods of low snowpack.

Washington isn’t the only Northwest state dealing with drought despite normal rainfall amounts. Seven counties in Oregon are already under a governor-declared drought emergency, with eight more already submitted to Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) for consideration. Unlike California’s current drought — brought on by a combination of heat and lack of precipitation — both Washington and Oregon’s droughts have been called “wet droughts,” characterized by normal precipitation but above-average temperatures that cause winter snow to fall as rain instead.

With the Pacific Northwest expected to warm between three and ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, this year’s record-breaking winter — the warmest on record for Washington and the second-warmest for Oregon — could become the region’s new normal.