Storms loosen drought’s grip on Washington

Storms roll back drought conditions in Washington, but snowpacks have yet to take shape.
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on December 13, 2015 2:46PM

Last changed on December 14, 2015 10:07AM

Heavy rains have soaked fields in Western Washington, like this one in southwest Washington pictured Dec. 11. The percentage of drought in the state has dropped to 34 percent from 85 percent in last August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Heavy rains have soaked fields in Western Washington, like this one in southwest Washington pictured Dec. 11. The percentage of drought in the state has dropped to 34 percent from 85 percent in last August, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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Storms are rolling back the drought in Washington, but the state also has seen record-high temperatures in some places, a wet-and-warm weather combination that last winter led to Washington’s “snowpack drought.”

“For the drought situation, in some ways, this week has been very good,” Washington State University meteorologist Nic Loyd said Friday. “My general outlook hasn’t changed. I’m still thinking that come next spring the snowpack will be below normal.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that the percentage of Washington in “extreme drought” had dropped to 34 percent from 44 percent the week before. Some 60 percent of the state remains in moderate to extreme drought. The report was completed two days before its release and before some of the week’s heaviest rains.

Precipitation in the past few days has pushed the Yakima River Basin’s five reservoirs well above normal levels.

The reservoirs were 47 percent full Friday and held 121 percent of the normal amount of water for Dec. 11, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Water stored in the reservoirs has increased nearly fivefold since the end of the irrigation season.

Elsewhere in the West, 88 percent of Oregon is either in severe or extreme drought, while 42 percent of Idaho is in severe or extreme drought.

California also did not improve. Some 92 percent of the state is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

Washington snowpacks are still taking shape, swinging wildly from above-average to below-average levels every day as snow levels rise and fall.

The Bureau of Reclamation won’t project whether there will be summer water shortages until early March.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center predicts that El Nino will take hold and keep temperatures above normal. But that time has been postponed.

The center predicted Thursday that Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California will have wetter and colder weather than normal through Dec. 24.

“The bottom line is we’re still kind of waiting for the El Nino,” Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said Friday. “We haven’t gotten into the typical El Nino weather pattern. There’s still strong indications that we will.”

Low snowpacks last winter created drought conditions in pockets of Washington. The entire state fell into a drought because of a hot and dry spring and summer.

Bond said he doesn’t expect a repeat of last year’s extraordinarily low snowpacks, even though El Nino likely will eventually raise temperatures.

“It’s not like we can write off the El Nino. Certainly, it’s strong and very likely to have a lot of the effects we’ve seen before,” he said.

Washington’s drought peaked in late August with 85 percent of the state in extreme drought and the other 15 percent in severe drought.

In Western Washington, drought conditions have been washed away, replaced in some places by flooding.

The drought is also yielding in the Cascades and northcentral and northeast Washington.

Extreme drought continues to prevail over all or portions of 20 counties in Central and Eastern Washington, where long-term rain deficits have not been made up.

While rain fell west of the Cascades, temperatures rose to the east. Spokane, Wenatchee, Ephrata and Omak set record highs Dec. 9, according to the National Weather Service.

WSU’s AgWeatherNet reported record highs that day in Pasco, Prosser, Kennwick and Walla Walla.

“In terms of the drought, I’m still worried about next year,” Loyd said. “I still think some of the El Nino impacts will be more obvious later.”

Oregon, Idaho and California’s drought status has changed little, according to the drought monitor, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.



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