November 19, 2015

How can we be in a drought if there is flooding?

*See update at the end!

The current official US Government Drought Monitor graphic for Washington State is shown below.  According to our government, the entire state is in at least moderate drought, with NW Washington and eastern Washington being in severe or extreme drought.

Many state and local entities using the US Drought Monitor, such as Washington State and the Dept of Ecology Drought Page, which features the Drought Monitor information at the top of their webpage! (see below)

As I will demonstrate, the NOAA Drought Monitor information is unscientific and subjective.  More of a political and motivational tool than reliable guidance to make key decisions.

First, it is ridiculous to claim that our entire state is in moderate or more severe drought.  There are stronger words I could have used, but this is is a family friendly blog.

As I write this blog, many of our local rivers are flooding with nearly all Washington rivers running above normal.    For example, here is the latest USGS streamflow map.  Nearly the entire state has streamflows that are well above normal (green, blue, and black), with some of the largest flows over the eastern slopes of the Cascades.

Only a handful of small, unimportant rivers in eastern WA are below normal.  The latest NW River Forecast Center summaries show many rivers in serious flood stage over our state from the Yakima River in eastern Washington, to the Snoqualmie, to the Chehalis, and more.   Doesn't look like drought there.

Well, what about precipitation?   Here is the precipitation difference from normal for the 30 days ending on Tuesday.  Most of the state is above normal (greens and blues), including all of western Washington, the Cascades, including the eastern slopes, and most of far eastern Washington.  And where it is low (Columbia Basin), it is only a bit below normal.  And those folks generally get their water from the Columbia River, which is at normal levels.

How about the official crop moisture index?  Way above normal in western WA and normal in the east.
I know what you are thinking, what about snowpack?  Surely, that is well below normal!  Well, we don't hide anything on this are the latest % of normal for the date of snow water content for the U.S. Government SNOTEL sites.  In general, we are close to normal, with sites ranging from 42 to 205%.   And many of our ski areas will be opening early for Thanksgiving (e.g., Baker, Whistler).

But what about our reservoirs?  Surely, they are way below normal due to the drought!  The truth is that many of our reservoirs are well above normal from recent rains.  Take Seattle.  Here is the total storage of the Tolt and Chester Morse reservoirs.  Levels have jumped to WAY ABOVE normal and are about 80% full.  No problems with having enough water for next summer at this rate.
But what about the reservoirs on the eastern slopes that feed the critical Yakima River?  How about Lake Keechulus near Snoqualmie Pass? (see below).  Now well above normal (red asterisks).  And rising.  We are on track to completely fill the Yakima reservoirs earlier than normal.

I could show you more, but you get the point.  It is silly to suggest that we are in a drought.  We are not.   And typical precipitation during even strong El Nino years is generally at or slightly below normal, so there is no reason to expect a drought ahead.

Now, I know what you are wondering.  If it is evident that there is no drought, why is the Drought Monitor saying we are NOW in a serious drought?

The Drought-affected Snoqualmie Valley

Now we get to the embarrassing part of the blog.   The Drought Monitor  is produced through a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

And now the key point:  it is a SUBJECTIVE, QUALITATIVE BLEND of  all kinds of information, including subjective appraisals of impacts.  It is not a strictly objective index based on precipitation, soil moisture, and the like.  And the folks that make this index tend to seriously exaggerate drought, as should be obvious to anyone who read the early part of my blog.  I will let you speculate why they are producing an unreliable product.

The Drought Monitor is unscientific, subjective and is doing the nation and our region a disservice by providing unreliable information that will lead authorities and governments to make the wrong decisions.   It is also being used by some to hype the current impacts of climate change produced by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

Our society needs to plan and make adaptations for upcoming climate change.   Products like the Drought Monitor will hinder efforts to do so in a rational, robust fashion.  It should be ended and replaced by a rational, completely objective product.

Update on Thursday

Today an updated Drought Monitor Graphic was released (see below, with the previous week's version below that for each reference).  They have moved western Washington from moderate drought to abnormally dry, but left the Cascades and eastern Washington the same. 

THIS IS RIDICULOUS!  There is absolutely no objective measure showing that western Washington is abnormally dry.  And their changes do not recognize the HUGE amount of moisture that has fallen on the Cascades--on both sides.  I found it hard to understand how NOAA and other groups can allow such a subjective and obviously wrong measure to become the NATION'S MAIN DROUGHT INDEX.   And let me assure you, I can point out equally problematic drought appraisals in other parts of the country.

The total reservoir storage for the Yakima Basin is now at normal:


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  1. Cliff, why don't you discuss the Palmer Drought Severity Index? It uses temperature and precipitation data to calculate water supply and demand, incorporates soil moisture, and is considered most effective for unirrigated cropland. It primarily reflects long-term drought and has been used extensively to initiate drought relief. It is more complex than the SPI and the Drought Monitor. Here's a link to the October PDSI map:

    Last spring you dissed talk of a drought, pointing to averageish precipitation. Yet I don't recall that you discussed above normal temperatures, which is the other half of the drought equation, nor soil moisture or forest fuel conditions. Yet anyone who actually lived through the last few months, especially here in the upper Columbia Basin of the Pacific Northwest, would be consider a knave for denying drought conditions.

    As southern California can attest, a couple extreme weather events and flash floods do not a drought undo.

    Steve in Montana


  2. Interesting and disturbing. To be fair, the CURRENT map released today shows light yellow for Western WA --"abnormally dry," not drought. But their explanation of "continued low reservoir levels" is directly contradicted by your evidence.

    I suspect the real "tell" lies in this paragraph:
    "The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency used the U.S. Drought Monitor to distribute an estimated $1.64 billion ... through the Livestock Forage Disaster Program; $50 million ...through the Livestock Assistance Grant Program; and additional funds through the Non-Fat Dry Milk Program in 2003 and 2004. The Internal Revenue Service also uses the U.S. Drought Monitor to determine the replacement period for livestock sold because of drought. ... the U.S. Department of Agriculture streamlined the process for secretarial disaster declarations, making declarations nearly automatic for a county shown in severe drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor for eight consecutive weeks."

    They even link to a tool farmers can use to determine eligibility.

    Less about misleading for climate change and more about misleading for farm subsidies, in other words -- but bad either way.

    I vaguely recall their old site had prominent links to other, more objective data such as the PDSI. Now they're buried, confusing, and outdated.


  3. My own local water district here in Snohomish County is at their lowest drought warning level so even the local government is basically saying there is no current drought. You'd think the drought information would flow from the local water districts up to the Feds.

  4. I can say that here in northern Idaho near the Canadian border the drought is over. Of course, there are still signs of the drought- dead and dying trees and some streams are still low, but soil moisture is very good.

  5. So, suppose we fix this by making it more data driven based on well-measured meteorological and hydrological data.

    Farmers currently dealing with crops that were weakened by drought this summer don't suddenly see them return to health after months of below-average precip and above average temperatures, just because we've had a good weeks-long run of storms. Any aquifers that were drained lower than normal to make up for lacking precip in the last several months do not suddenly recharge in a couple weeks' worth of rainstorms. Plants don't immediately snap back to normal, productive health.

    Declaring a drought for policy making purposes is a risk based decision. Risk is a function of BOTH likelihood AND impact. Drought is a long-term, high-impact condition. An impact focused condition, not a purely likelihood-driven decision.

    Could it be that the likelihood of continued drought may have dropped to zero while the impacts (the other, arguably MORE IMPORTANT HALF of the the equation) have not yet dropped to zero?

    Hence a continued drought declaration is justified?

    And IF we made it more meteorologically and hydrologically driven, what kind of stock would the public put in a system that said "Hey it rained hard for a while, the drought is over!"? Even while the affected farmers, livestock-raisers, etc. are still digging themselves out of debt and damage?

  6. I'm not so sure it's fair to characterize drought declarations as "LIES" (so clearly illustrated by the Pinocchio graphic), since drought itself is a subjective condition. There is no national or internationally "standard" for what constitutes a drought or its varying levels.

    You can objectively say that it is raining or that there are 3 inches of snow on the ground or that a reservoir is full to 80%. You can not objectively say any given condition, on any given day or timespan, is "OFFICIAL DROUGHT."

    The Federal Drought Monitor is subjective, but all determinations of drought are subjective. Just because the FDM is declaring us in a drought despite two weeks of heavy precipitation does NOT make them "LIARS."

    Perhaps you should have used a less sensational "tall tale" graphic, instead.



  7. A glaring oversight in Cliff's repeated dismissal of drought evaluation and indications is that soil moisture and aquifer/groundwater replenishment are especially important for reaching or leaving drought status. After all, not everyone receives their water from surface water sources; a significant number of people (especially in rural Washington) dig wells.

    Another point is that the U.S Drought Monitor map is only updated once per week, with the results posted 48 hours later. This week's map was produced on Tuesday morning, and only just released today. We will see more apparent reflections of rainfall coverage and intensity in relation to drought strength on NEXT WEEK's map.

    I do feel like the drying out of the soil is a parameter that deserves more weight. As the soil loses moisture, it subsides and compacts, making it more difficult for water to infiltrate later during rainy periods. This is why deserts, with their sandy soils, experience flash floods as water no longer is absorbed and simply runs off as gravity steers it to the lowest elevation possible. Eastern Washington, despite tremendous geoengineering, really IS a desert, after all.

  8. Jinxy...I don't think there are any "glaring oversights." Precipitation has been near normal during the past few there is no reason to expect that ground water is taking a particular hit. Do you have any evidence that ground water and soil moisture are below normal now in western Washington?

    And it is at least interesting that the drought monitor folks made the change the day after my blog came out.

    And yes, eastern WA with or without drought is an arid it is really is the flow from the major rivers used for irrigation that really count...cliff

    1. I work in the water well industry and have seen a noticeable uptick in replacement/dry wells this year, though primarily the wells that are drying up are wells that rely on very shallow aquifers, surface water, or were very marginal from the beginning and likely relying on surface recharge near the well. In our business, the drought effect is very noticeable, despite the data and evidence provided. However, many of those wells are now getting back to 'normal'.

  9. Yes. One thousand times yes.

    And for those disagreeing with Cliff, some objective evidence to back up your claims would be great, like he shared in his post. And let’s talk specifically about western Washington since the subjective words “horrific” and “devastating” have been bantered about to describe the “drought” in Seattle (now “Abnormally Dry”) but very little actual evidence has been shared. Like soil hydrology if you disagree with Cliff’s stream flows and precip and reservoir level data – how about some numbers from around the Puget Sound area, and how they are showing “Abnormally Dry” conditions today?

    I am forever grateful to Cliff for having the stones (keeping it family-friendly here) to step out on these issues and back them up with numbers - but continue to be shocked there are not more in the community saying it louder. When he says “disservice”, that is an understatement. Science is about truth, and every instance where science is invoked but truth is distorted (or worse) is highly damaging. It needs to stop.

    Kudos again to you Cliff. Sorry you are the lone voice in the wilderness, but at least in the wilderness everything is quantifiable and real.

  10. FWIW I was curious about this too last week (before the maps were updated) and this was the response received directly from the NDMC folks at that point in time:

    "In looking at the maps, there has been some improvement shown in western WA in the last week and for even more of western WA over the last month. If I look at just the precipitation data for 2015, there are many areas of western WA which are still showing a deficit of 8-16 inches below normal for the year. The US Drought Monitor considers many indicators and not just precipitation, but it does shed some light as to why there are still areas in moderate drought. Also, the time scales for drought in the west usually overlap several years. If I look at the last 24 and 36 months respectively, the areas of dryness in the state really start to be defined."

  11. This is why Cliff Mass is such a treasure. He is a slave only to the science and the data. The Alarmists are far more concerned with politics than with science.

    Thanks much Cliff for leading the blind.

  12. Cliff, maybe you could look at or talk about the UW Drought Monitor:

  13. "And it is at least interesting that the drought monitor folks made the change the day after my blog came out. "

    They update on a regular schedule -- I believe data is finalized on Tuesdays and new maps posted on Thursdays. You probably just made this post right before this new map came out. Most of your points are still valid, but they do not currently have the whole state in drought.

    Taking a closer look at their site, I was appalled at the lack of transparency. If you're going to include a statement like this
    "Countries around the world have sought to emulate the U.S. Drought Monitor. We stress that it isn’t a strictly quantitative product, and that the community of drought observers lends credibility to the state-of-the-art blend of science and subjectivity that goes into the map"
    you owe it to the public to include more detail on how the index is constructed, and include links to the actual data.


  14. Ah, now I feel a little silly, this page has more detail:

    I missed it earlier. I think they could have chosen a clearer title, e.g. "Data Included in Monitor", but I retract some of my complaints about the site. I remain mystified how they have western WA as "abnormally dry."


  15. Well, I'm not sure if that was your intention Cliff but the local climate change denial community lit up like a christmas tree with this post!

    I assume you have discussed this issue with both NOAA (otherwise known as Agenda 21 for some) or the US Drought Monitor?

    What did they tell you?

  16. Bruce... What denial community? Where are you looking? Most denial folks don't like the fact I think global warming is a serious threat and issue...cliff

  17. Anecdotal stuff about drought: My lawn dies back as soon as hot summer weather hits, because of thin sandy soil. So I decided to plant a fall cover crop to increase tilth, let it die back in winter and replant grass in the spring. In August I started jabbing the dirt with a garden fork, filling the dents with water, wait until it soaked in, and repeat, jabbing deeper, until there was moist enough soil to plant oats, clover, and field peas in. I did a patch of ground every few days. After the first hard rain in September (which turned Spring Street in Friday Harbor into a river, briefly) I figured it would get easier to dig and plant. Well, the soil was moist, but only for about half an inch down- then dry, with puffs of powdery dust. A few weeks later, when everything was sloppy wet out, the top inch of soil was moist. This week, when we have again been drenched from the sky and my neighbor's low-lying garden area is a big puddle, my yard is moist for only the top 6 inches. I'm guessing the "drought monitor" is looking at changes in soil moisture, with an agricultural focus, rather than precipitation totals. But, in spite of the dust a few inches down, it no longer feels like a drought!

  18. Regarding the water situation in the Yakima, they're not out of the woods yet. Keechelus fills the most easily of all five Yakima Basin reservoirs, so it's good that it's on track to fill, but it's just one sanguine example. What really matters in the Yakima is whether the storage (which supplies about half of irrigation demand) is augmented by an equal amount of water, stored as snowpack, that melts relatively slowly. Last year there were full reservoirs in the early spring, but proratable irrigators only had a 44% water supply and salmon suffered because of a lack of snowpack. Whether that comes remains to be seen. Right now Snoqualmie has a 3 inch base and White Pass has 24 inches. Not a good enough head start going into what looks like a pretty dry couple of weeks and an El NiƱo likely to take effect soon.

  19. For transparency's sake (for your readers): I am a hydrologist and research faculty at the UW. A small amount of my research funding comes federal agencies for drought-related research. My group operates near real-time surface water monitors, including for the Pacific Northwest. These monitors are fully-automated systems that ingest weather observations and use hydrological models to put current conditions into a historical perspective (drier or wetter than normal for a specific day of the year). The systems focus on soil moisture and snow rather than precipitation alone and as a result account for more memory in the system than precipitation-based drought indices.

    Our system agrees with you that western Washington is no longer in a drought. We still show below normal conditions on the east side of the southern Cascades and in southeastern Washington. These results are somewhat dependent on the model that is used to track the surface water conditions. For example, in our national version of this system, we show in our multimodel estimate that the Olympics are now wetter than average, while drought conditions linger in the southeastern part of the State, but this varies amongst the different hydrological models.

    That the US Drought Monitor (USDM) is based on physical observations (of weather and water) as well as discussions among water managers is not a secret. It is clearly stated on the USDM web site under the About USDM --> Background tab"": "The map is based on measurements of climatic, hydrologic and soil conditions as well as reported impacts and observations from more than 350 contributors around the country. […] The authors examine all the data and use their best judgment to reconcile any differences in what different sources are saying.".

    The USDM also shows a rapid change in the drought conditions over western Washington over the last few weeks. The system takes a longer view of drought and in that sense is probably a better reflection of agricultural and socioeconomic drought.

    I am not sure I fully understand your objection to this. The USDM is not first and foremost a tool for scientific trend analysis, but a tool that helps agencies determine whether to invoke certain drought measures. Over the past year I have sat in on a number of the discussions that feed into the conditions that are reported in the USDM. I have no role in making any of the decisions, but am asked on occasion to provide background info based on what we are seeing in our own tool. My experience does not agree with your statement that "the folks that make this index tend to seriously exaggerate drought". The discussion tends to be pretty straightforward and is informed by both weather and hydrological data and conditions on the ground. What you do tend to see is that the USDM often lags the conditions in our own monitors. This was apparent this spring (when our system indicated drought conditions ahead of the USDM) and now (when the USDM still shows drought conditions when our system does not).

    Are there problems with the USDM? Undoubtedly, but I can say the same for our objective system. I am not convinved that a "rational, completely objective product" will be able to capture the variety of drought impacts that the USDM is able to capture, at least not at this time. My main disagreement is with the tone of your post which implies that there is some nefarious conspiracy behind the USDM. I find the choice of your Pinocchio cartoon rather unfortunate. My sense is that most water managers derive no joy from declaring droughts.

  20. I find it fascinating that both sides of the political divide on climate change (political, not scientific) take Cliff's posts and use them as confirmation of their own views. Most troublingly, the deniers, who have trouble finding anyone with scientific chops to quote.

    The reality is that Cliff's just openly discussing the science and its implications. Sometimes his opinions are inconvenient to one's point of view, but that's one of the virtues of science -- it's only interesting when it disturbs existing knowledge and biases. Which is how we learn.

    I believe this behavior is the evil spawn of the media's sound-bite reporting. Finding one sentence or one paragraph in an article and using that to validate your own views, and ignoring everything else the writer has to say. We've become a tl;dr world.

    I grew up long before the Internet, but I'd always had this great hope that we'd all become smarter and broader thinking after the Internet allowed us to access a far wider range of knowledge. I remember when I had to settle arguments outside my area of expertise by digging out my old college textbooks or going to a university library. That was a lot of work, so we tended to trust experts who'd done the work.

    Unfortunately, I think the opposite has now occurred. Fewer and fewer people understand the scientific method, and there has been a deliberate effort to disparage and destroy the credibility of science in the US. We only value the science that goes into making gadgets (and I say that as an electrical engineer who used to design gadgets).

    Tech won't fix the planet. Help perhaps, but not fix. But widespread knowledge of basic science and public policy that respects that knowledge might.

    Keep up the good work, Cliff. Too many scientists have retreated from the public battle. I know you look to another great public educator, Carl Sagan, for inspiration, but I suspect it has actually gotten a harder in some ways to educate the public than during Carl's day.

    I don't recall people taking excerpts from Carl's work and using that to "prove" positions that he obviously disagreed with.

  21. I swapped polite email w/ a NOAA guy listed on that page. I suggested even if they are correct on "east is dry", they are greatly inflating stats by suggesting the "dry east" has 3.2mm people. The "east" counties total only about 1.9mm.

  22. BTW, I'm aware of your own statements about AGW Cliff. I simply think it is hilarious that a direct and pointed criticism at NOAA brought out the usual suspects, looking for blood. The Climate change denial crowd - here or elsewhere - absolutely hate NOAA and consider them all UN / Kenyan anti -colonialist stooges, constantly making "adjustments " to data etc, all for very unamerican reasons. You must admit, they are pretty funny!

    I have no idea about the validity of your criticism so I just assumed they (NOAA) had some explanation that you would be party to.

  23. I am a record keeper, for the Can Gov. About 200 miles north of Yakima in essentially the same extension of the valley, located between the coast mnts and the Rockeys, as far as my 25 year old records show there is no lack of water or any abundance over this short period of time I call it weather! ( I have also farmed for 40 years in the same area so water is kinda important)


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