Severe drought conditions have spread to 98 percent of Washington, and state agencies warned Friday that hardships are expected to grow for farms, fish and communities.
In a conference call with reporters, state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon noted that rain in Washington is now being treated as “breaking news.”
“We’ve never experienced a drought like this,” Bellon said. “We’re in an unbelievable streak of hotter and drier weather.”
So far 13 Washington counties, plus all the counties that border them, have been declared federal disaster areas because of the drought. Bellon said all 39 counties may eventually qualify for federal drought relief.
Conditions are looking worse than during the last two statewide droughts, in 2001 and 2005, she said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor on Thursday classified all but 2 percent of the state in a severe drought. A slice of southwest Washington remains categorized as being in a moderate drought. Less than one-third of the state was in a severe drought three weeks ago.
The Washington Department of Agriculture estimated two months ago that crop losses would total $1.2 billion because of the drought, with losses particularly heavy in the Yakima Basin, WSDA estimated losses elsewhere would equal 10 percent of crop and livestock value. WSDA has not revised the estimate since the drought worsened.
WSDA hydrogeologist Jaclyn Hancock said losses won’t be known until the U.S. Department of Agriculture compiles harvest date and releases its annual report in early 2017. “We hate to make any estimate because it’s really difficult at this point,” she said.
To protect fish stressed by warm water and low flows, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Thursday closed or restricted fishing on more than 30 rivers.
Some 44 percent of the U.S. Geological Survey’s 149 stream gauges were reporting record low flows Friday.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources said the wildland fire season started early, with more than 700 fires since the beginning of June. “We will have an expensive fire season,” said Mary Verner, deputy supervisor for resource protection.
The Washington Department of Health warned that municipal water systems could face late-summer shortages, particularly on the Olympic Peninsula.
On Thursday, in a departure from previous forecasts, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center said Washington had a better than even chance of drier than usual weather for the next three months. In June, the center predicted Washington had an equal chance of a drier or wetter than normal summer.
The center reaffirmed that Washington can expect a warmer than average August and September.
Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said the winter’s low snowpack and the state’s hottest June ever was a “one-two punch to the landscape.”
He said warm waters off the West Coast and a strong El Nino brewing farther out in Pacific tilts the odds in favor of another warm winter and low snowpack.