Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought in the state of Washington last week. He also described some of the conditions that strain our resources this year. Washington’s statewide snowpack is 15% of normal. Of the 98 sites where we check for snowpack, 11 of them have no snow at all – the first time ever in recorded history. With the worst winter on record for snowpack, we face a potentially disastrous fire season, even though many lakes are full from the rains.
Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown added 8 more drought-stricken counties to the growing list last week, bringing the total to 15. With statewide snowpack at less than 7% of normal and with precipitation less than 87%, Oregon is scrambling too, trying to maintain agriculture, fish and wildlife stock, hydropower and drinking water supplies.
Meanwhile California is enduring an ongoing decade-long drought that is marked by both high temperatures and absence of precipitation altogether. Much of the Pacific Northwest has received some rain this winter, but very little snow as temperatures have risen enough in the Cascades and Olympics to deter snowfall. All 3 states are struggling to deal with shortfalls. With only a few minor scattered snows this winter, the Olympics have received less than 5% of usual snowpack.
Fire dangers, fish habitat
Washington’s commissioner of public lands Peter Goldmark describes the upcoming fire season in strong terms: “There’s a lot of heavy fuel out on the Olympic Peninsula,” He adds, “The stream flows are going to be low, and barring a miracle, that landscape’s going to be bone dry.”
Governor Inslee on Friday was candid in his assessment looking forward: “We’re really starting to feel the pain from this snowpack drought. Impacts are already severe in several areas of the state. Difficult decisions are being made about what crops get priority water and how best to save fish.”
According to Maia Bellon, head of Washington’s Department of Ecology, ”This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced.” She describes a ‘wet’ drought with adequate rain but higher temps that nearly eliminated snowpack. “Rain amounts have been normal but snow has been scarce. And we’re watching what little snow we have quickly disappear.”
Overall, the state of Washington experienced the warmest winter on record this year; Oregon also endured a nearly snowless winter and the second warmest winter.
In Oregon, Governor Brown described the looming threat this way. “As we move into summer, many areas of the state are going to dry out very quickly, likely leading to a difficult fire season as well as water shortages,” she said. “We need our state, local and federal partners to be prepared as our communities grapple with hot and dry conditions.”
Researchers predict long dry summer, fires worsening conditions from El Nino
El Nino typically brings rainfall to central and southern California, but leads to warmer weather and less precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.
Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this spring that El Nino has been building strength since March of this year. They predict with 80% chance that this climatic conditions will dominate weather patterns through the rest of the year. They also warn of the likelihood that the worst impacts will be felt in autumn and winter, raising fears of another warm and snowless winter brewing.
Inslee told crowds on Friday that he expects the crop loss alone to amount to more $1.2 billion statewide. In the Yakima Valley, one of Washington’s most fertile and productive, irrigation districts have already begun turning off water flow in order to extend supplies.
With lower water levels in creeks and streams, some water is being diverted to maintain populations of steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. Where temperatures in streams have risen already beyond healthy levels, fish are trucked to cooler waters upstream.