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Know the West

Drought persists in the Northwest, despite winter rains

Water supplies and drought outlooks are grim in most Western states.


Last Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in three Washington regions. Two days later, it rained across the state. In Seattle and Olympia, it poured enough to break decades-old records, and in Walla Walla County, one of the state’s dry spots, a half an inch fell.

But the weekend's rain won’t break Washington’s drought. Farmers, ski area operators and water managers are waiting on snows that haven’t come and that likely won’t until next winter. In the Pacific Northwest, as in other mountainous regions of the West, mountain snow normally acts as a reservoir, melting off in the spring and carrying the region through dry summers. But this year, the snow just hasn’t appeared. According to the latest federal data, the Cascades and the Olympics have less than a third of their normal snowpack for this time of year. In some areas, that number is less than ten percent.

The North Cascades have less than half their normal snowpack.
Photo courtesy of Ethan Linck.
Most precipitation since the start of winter has come as rain, which has bolstered reservoirs and could prevent a total dry-out of the state’s agricultural system. But it’s also made managing water this year exponentially more difficult. In the past, managers have relied on a steady trickle of snowmelt that keeps water coming into the system through the dry summer months. But with no snow to melt, new water will come only from spring and summer rains, in sporadic, unpredictable bursts. 

If managers release too much water in an attempt to prevent reservoir overflows, and no more precipitation comes this spring and summer, streams could run low and threaten agriculture and species like the threatened Chinook salmon. If they keep reservoir levels too high, a late-season storm could overwhelm an already-full storage system and cause flooding. This year, long-term weather forecasts suggest it’s going to be a warm and dry spring and managers are keeping reservoirs high, for now.

“We feel more comfortable in holding onto water versus the risk of flooding,” Paul Fleming, manager of the climate and sustainability group for Seattle’s public utility system, recently told environmental journalism outlet Circle of Blue.

As for farmers, ranchers, small towns and other water users who don’t receive water from the state’s reservoir system, they’ll have to rely on what little comes through the natural system—ditches, streams and undammed rivers. Without snow, that’s likely to drop off as the spring and summer dry-up begins.

This year’s variable weather patterns have had impacts outside of Washington, as well. Just over 60 percent of the West is in drought and is likely to stay that way at least for the next three months, barring any major weather shifts. California’s drought has been the big attention-grabber, but Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico are facing a tight water supply, as well.

Take a look at how Western communities are coping:  

  • Like Washington, Oregon’s paltry snowpack is making water users nervous. Over a third of the sites monitored by the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service were snow-free on March 1, a situation the service described as “highly unusual.” On Tuesday, Oregon’s new governor Kate Brown declared a drought emergency in two counties. More are likely to follow, according to Reuters.
    Bare ground at 8,000 feet on Oregon's Mount Hood in late January.
    Photo courtesy of Ethan Linck
  • Nevada is entering its fourth year of drought. For the second year in a row, no part of the state has escaped water shortage. The ongoing shortfalls have sparked debates about how the state should disburse the limited water available. Given precipitous plunges in groundwater levels, the state engineer ordered farmers in several river basins to curtail pumping. A group of farmers is now challenging that order in court.
  • Also in Nevada, wildlife officials are warning that drought could create more human encounters with wild animals, such as bears and rattlesnakes. "There's not going to be as much food for rattlesnakes so they're going to be closer to green areas, ditches, and stream beds," Nevada Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy told News4 in Reno.
  • Mexico border states, excluding California, have escaped the worst of this year’s dryout but the region’s reservoirs are still below capacity. As of March 1, Arizona’s reservoir system is roughly 25 percent below average and New Mexico’s are even lower that that.
  • In Utah, the drought has worsened since last year, with 95 percent of the state facing some form of drought, compared with 60 percent at the same time last year. Still, the state has received 70 percent of its normal precipitation and streamflows are projected to be between 70 and 90 percent of normal.
  • A sequence of big storms at the end of February boosted Colorado’s snowpack to 87 percent of normal. The state’s reservoir system has slightly higher water levels than usual and federal forecasters were cautiously optimistic about summer streamflows. Still, many of the state’s river basins are recovering from years of below-average snowpack. Just three are at normal or near normal snow levels.
  • While Alaska isn’t in drought, the state received less snow than normal this year. That could signal the onset of an early fire season, thanks in part to fluffy grass. Usually, the weight of the snow flattens the grass, making it harder to burn. But this year, "it’s up and it’s fluffy, and it’s available for burning," Kristi Bullock, a fire management officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the Peninsula Clarion. In response, the Alaska Division of Forestry is bringing on fire response staff a couple weeks early, just in case.

Kate Schimel is an editorial intern at High Country News.