Pacific Northwest braces for drought because of record-low snowpack

By Nathanael Massey | 03/13/2015 07:59 AM EDT

Nobody is calling it a drought — at least not yet.

But as the warmest winter in Oregon and Washington state since the Dust Bowl era gives way to spring, officials in both states will soon decide whether or not to declare water emergencies.

In Washington, representatives from a range of government agencies convened this week to review watershed forecasts and lay the case for the announcement of a drought. That case has been sent to the offices of Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is expected to make an announcement on the committee’s findings later today.


"What came out of the committee meetings this week was that 34 of 52 designated watersheds are at 75 percent of normal or below," said Dan Partridge, communications manager at the Washington Department of Ecology. "That’s half the criteria to trigger for a drought declaration."

The prospect of drought in Washington and Oregon might seem strange given the states’ reputation for overcast skies and unending drizzle. And in fact, the region has seen close to average rainfall over the course of the winter, said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Washington Snow Survey Office.

"The rain’s come in spurts, with lots of dry days in between," said Scott Pattee, a water supply specialist with the Washington Snow Survey Office. "Still, it’s been around what you’d expect, so in terms of soil moisture and groundwater, we’re in good shape."

The problem, he said, is with the region’s snowpack.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, snow at nearly half of Oregon’s long-term monitoring sites is at its lowest levels on record. Sixty-eight of 153 monitoring sites in the state were completely without snow as of March 1.

"Without snowpack in the mountains, there is a high likelihood that Oregon’s streams and rivers will have below normal flows this summer," the report notes. "Low flowing rivers in the summer time have many implications affecting fish, wildlife, irrigation, livestock, city municipalities and hydropower operations."

Calif.’s drought moves north

The picture is particularly troubling in southeast Oregon, where California’s ongoing drought appears to have jumped the state line. Nearly 45 percent of the state is currently experiencing severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

A similar story is unfolding in Washington, according to Pattee. The state as a whole is looking at about 27 percent of its regular snowpack, he said, with conditions in some areas much lower.

Thanks to the rain, reservoirs are at healthy levels, so the regions and infrastructure that draw on them will have some buffer, he said. But even reservoirs depend on snowmelt to refill over the course of the summer.

To be sure, neither state is in the situation of California, which is mired in its fourth straight year of drought and faces perilously low groundwater and reservoir levels in many parts of the state.

And, while a drought could be a concern this summer, the Northwest tends to move out of dry conditions within a year, said Pattee. "It’s typically about a 10-year cycle between these conditions," he said.

Even so, officials are taking precautions. Officials have asked the Washington Legislature for $9 million in funding to pre-empt the summer’s dryness — money that would be spent to deepen wells, install pumps and pipes and fix leaky infrastructure.

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