Rain ends drought in Western Washington, federal monitors say

Water covers a field Nov. 18 in southwest Washington. November storms washed away the drought in Western Washington, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which reports current conditions but does not make long-term projections of water supplies.

Heavy November rains have at least temporarily KO’d the drought in Western Washington, including on the Olympic Peninsula and Skagit Valley, where farmers faced irrigation cutbacks last summer, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Wednesday.

While most of Eastern Washington remains in “extreme” drought, the westside of the Cascade Curtain has become almost drought-free.

Some 36 percent of the state no longer has drought status. The entire state was in a “severe” to “extreme” drought in early October. As recently as two weeks ago, all of Washington was in at least a “moderate drought.”

Sections of Western Washington have received 15 to 20 inches of precipitation since Nov. 1, according to the Drought Monitor, which provides a snapshot of current conditions, but does not project future water supplies.

More importantly for the 2016 growing season, the Olympic Mountains and North Cascades are accumulating snow, and the five Yakima River Basin reservoirs have caught up to normal levels.

It’s early and the U.S. Climate Prediction Center reaffirmed last week that El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean are likely to warm the Pacific Northwest’s winter. But the Olympic range snowpack was encouragingly at 161 percent of normal Friday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The snowpack was less than 5 percent of normal at the end of last winter and was the most visible sign of drought in Western Washington. Olympic Peninsula farmers who draw from the snow-fed Dungeness River were among the growers most affected by drought.

The snowpack in the North Cascades on Friday was 116 percent of average. The snowpack was less than half of normal last winter. Low summer flows led to irrigation cutbacks for some northwest Washington growers.

Heavy rain in the Chehalis River Basin flooded farmland this month. Some farmers there were cut off from irrigation water after a dry and hot spring and early summer.

With their reservoirs filling up, Seattle, Everett and Tacoma declared Nov. 23 that their municipal water supplies were back to normal and ended a voluntary conservation program.

The Cascades’ rain shadow has kept precipitation below average this month in Central and Eastern Washington. With the exception of the Olympics and North Cascades, snowpacks in Washington are smaller than normal for late November.

Some 46 percent of the state is still in extreme drought, 14 percent in severe drought and 4 percent in moderate drought.

The precipitation has benefited the Yakima River Basin reservoirs in the South Cascades. The five reservoirs Friday held 102 percent of their average amount for the date, according the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The reservoirs were below 40 percent of normal by the end of the irrigation season in late October.

The reservoirs still have less water than they did at this time a year ago. Ample precipitation swelled reservoirs last winter, but low snowpacks led to water rationing in the Yakima Valley.

There has been little change in drought conditions this month in Oregon, Idaho and California.

Some 96 percent of Oregon is in some drought stage, including 60 percent in extreme drought. In Idaho, 67 percent of the state is in drought, including 9 percent in extreme drought. Some 97 percent of California is in a drought, with 45 percent in “exceptional” drought, the most-severe classification.

The Drought Monitor is a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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