Where did the Northwest’s moisture go?


For years I’ve hated the winter rains of Oregon’s Willamette Valley — hated the way they start in late October and continue well into April.

Soaking the landscape and leaving everything wrinkled and rotted, the rain was something to hide from, something to make me hold my breath, shut my eyes and imagine a drier world. But this year, the rains haven’t come, and for what may be the first time, I find myself praying for water.

In the beginning of February, federal scientists traveled to Mount Hood to measure the year’s snowpack. After taking samples and making measurements, the scientists confirmed what the locals already knew: The pack was low, 19 percent of normal low. According to these same scientists, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, it is possible, but not likely, that heavy storms during February and March could make up for the shortcomings of the early winter months. They say it would take 240 percent of the average snowfall to do it, and I say, we’re quickly running out of time.

This is the first winter I've experienced where the ski resorts closed in January because of lack of snow and where the daffodils began blooming the first week in February. In past years the rains were something we Oregonians would comment on without much emotion, but for the last several months conversations have followed an unusual path.

"Awfully nice day," I might say to the clerk at the grocery.

"It sure is," she replies. "Can you believe 60 degrees in January?"

"I know; it’s beautiful, but it sure isn’t normal," I counter as she bags my carrots.

"Nope, not normal at all," she says as I hand her a twenty. "It’s gonna be a long summer the way we’re going," I say as I get my change and head for the door.

"It could get ugly," she says. "You enjoy that sunshine today."

It’s the last two lines that have me worried, those ambiguous thoughts about the future, about the upcoming summer and what it will bring. These worries have me looking at the sky, scouting for dark clouds.

Without adequate snowpack in the Cascades, our region’s rivers, fields and people will suffer. I envision dry waterways, native salmon runs unable to return to the streams of their birth. I see failed crops, brown fields and a losing battle between small farmers and out-of-state growers. I picture wildfires beginning in May, raging for months across the West, and finally dying out because there is simply nothing left to burn.

Maybe I’m being dramatic. There have been dry years before, but for some reason I can’t stop thinking about this year. It’s a strange year, because California is receiving record amounts of precipitation, snowfall in Utah is close to breaking records, while here in the Northwest ski resorts are closing and reservoirs are pitifully low. A year where, as the clerk says, "It could get ugly."

NASA scientists just released a study that says 2005 may well be the warmest year on record, since records began being kept in the 1800s. The National Weather Service’s recent U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook shows an "enhanced risk for drought development in the Pacific Northwest," through April. This in an area that is famous for its rain — an area whose residents are sometimes referred to as mossbacks.

I guess my question is, Is this normal, this lack of rain in areas where it has previously been plentiful, and an excess of moisture in places that are notoriously dry? Is it something that regularly occurs in a healthy system?

Or is something wrong? Is something out of balance? Is it a product of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions? Or is it simply a funny year for weather, and whether it’s normal or not, how will we make it without the rain?

I don’t know the answer to my questions. I don’t know if there are answers to some of them. But I think the questions themselves are worth talking about. I think it’s up to all of us who live here, who have our hearts and our livelihoods invested here, to try to understand what a season without water could mean for our farmers and our fish, for our parents and our children, and for the land we call home.

Aimee Brown is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Corvallis, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.