The second-driest spring on record has pushed more than one-fifth of Washington into an “extreme drought,” the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday.
In 127 years of record-keeping, only the spring of 1924 was drier statewide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
South-central and southeast Washington are especially dry. The USDA on Thursday predicted winter wheat production will decline by 28% and rated nearly half the state’s pastures and rangeland “very poor.”
Klickitat County rancher Keith Kreps said the conditions portended higher costs for cattlemen.
“The price of hay is going to be higher than hell,” he said. “It’s going to make us tighten our belt.”
Washington overall received half the usual rain from March through May. South-central Washington got one-fifth its normal rainfall, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
“In my whole life, in 60 years, I’ve never seen the late spring as dry. It’s unreal,” Kreps said. “It’s pretty bleak unless it rains all summer.”
Some 68% of Washington is some stage of drought — from “moderate” to “extreme.” All areas untouched by drought are in Western Washington.
The percentage of the state in an extreme drought increased to 22% from 4% over the week before.
By some measurements, some parts of Eastern Washington are nearing “exceptional drought,” the worst category.
The three-month period was fairly warm, but heat isn’t causing drought, Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said.
“Temperatures for the spring weren’t terrible. This is really a precipitation-driven drought,” she said. “We’re unlikely to see a big improvement, especially east of the Cascades at this point.”
Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said there is no clear explanation for the extended dry spell.
“I think the simplest explanation is that it’s an extreme example of random variability,” he said. “It’s not even an early taste of climate change.”
Adams, Benton and Franklin counties are in extreme drought, as are parts of Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Spokane, Whitman and Yakima counties.
Conditions may worsen. The federal Climate Prediction Center has forecast a warm and dry summer.
On Friday, it issued an “excessive heat” warning for the eastern two-thirds of Washington for June 19-20. The advisory covered much of the West, including the eastern two-thirds of Oregon and Idaho.
The dry spring followed a good winter for building mountain snow to melt into rivers.
However, the areas most affected by drought rely on rain. “Unless you have irrigation, you’re pretty well screwed,” Kreps said.
The Washington Department of Ecology has curtailed irrigation to 93 water users in the Chehalis Basin in southwest Washington. Those irrigators are shut off most years.