After a winter that defied expectations, Washington on Thursday became the only one among 11 Western states completely free of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Climatologists predicted El Nino would cause a warm and dry winter in the Pacific Northwest, making likely a second-straight “snowpack drought.” Officials foresaw the water shortage that affected farmers throughout the state last summer deepening.
While temperatures statewide were warmer than normal, reservoirs and mountain snowpacks are generally above average. Long-term moisture deficits, particularly deep in southeast Washington, have been made up.
In a summary of crop conditions nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported March 29 that some Washington farmers were delaying tilling, spraying and fertilizing because of overly saturated soils. “Few fields were dry enough to start field work at the end of March,” according to the USDA.
Washington State Assistant Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said Washington’s winter has given something researchers to study.
“The scientific community is looking into it,” she said. “The forecasts were wrong in terms of precipitation, and we’re grateful for that.”
Washington was last drought-free on Dec. 31, 2013. Even then, 82 percent of the state was “abnormally dry,” according to the drought monitor, a weekly report by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.
Now, only 7 percent of the state, a band along the Oregon border that stretches across eight Eastern Washington counties, is “abnormally wet.”
“I expect that to go away,” said Bumbaco, a contributor to the drought monitor.
Washington’s 2015 drought was caused by a low snowpack followed by the hottest summer on record. By July 7, the entire state was in a drought.
The drought peaked in late August, with 85 percent of Washington in “extreme drought.” Two-thirds of the state was still in extreme drought at the start of the water year, Oct. 1.
As late as Nov. 10, the entire state was in at least a “moderate drought.”
Idaho and Oregon also have show significant improvements since Oct. 1.
The percentage of Idaho in some level of drought has declined from 86 percent to 3 percent. In Oregon, the percentage of the state in drought has dropped from 100 percent to 46 percent.
California’s multi-year drought is budging. Some 35 percent of the state remains in “exceptional drought” — the worst classification — down from 46 percent at the start of the water year. The percentage of the state in some stage of drought has declined from 97 percent to 91 percent.
The Climate Prediction Center forecasts a warm and dry spring for the Northwest. Climatologists offer limited guidance on summer weather.
The climate center in March projected an 80 percent chance the Pacific Ocean will cool by next fall, producing La Nina conditions.
In La Nina years, climatologists expect Washington to have a wetter-than-average winter.