Thursday, May 23, 2019

Does Washington State Really Have a Drought Emergency?

On May 20th, Governor Inslee announced a drought declaration for a large portion of the State.

Media outlets like the Seattle Times had banner front page headlines about the threat.

So you may ask.  Are the conditions we are experiencing really that usual?  It there really a significant threat of hardship over large areas of Washington State?   

This blog will examine the observations and latest model forecasts to help answer these questions. 

The bottom line:  the situation is far less dire or unusual than advertised. There will be plenty of water for nearly all users, and that the forecast is for a wetter than normal summer.

So let's look at the data.  We can start with the departure from normal in inches for the "water year" precipitation, which starts on October 1st.  East of the Cascade crest, the vulnerable areas for agriculture and wildfires, precipitation has been at or above normal.  But conditions were clearly drier than normal over our normally sodden coast.  Of course, the coastal region has limited population and little vulnerable agriculture.  The rest of western WA has been modestly below normal.

Plotting the precipitation over the state for October 1- April 30 since 1930, shows that overall, that precipitation as bit below normal, but no lower than roughly fifteen other winters, with a number being substantially drier.

And the Palmer Drought Index, which considers the impacts of both temperature and precipitation on soil moisture, shows shows normal or better than normal condition east of the Cascade crest, with drier than normal conditions limited to portions of western WA.

The latest USDA soil moisture report shows above normal soil moisture for the state

Steamflow are normal for the eastern 2/3 of the state, with below normal values on the lower western slopes of the Cascades.

 Reservoir storage is quite good over the State.  The critically important Yakima River System is just below normal storage.

And all major urban water supply systems are in good shape.  For example, Seattle's reservoirs, located in the middle of the drier than normal zone on the western side of the Cascades, is now above normal in terms of water storage.

There has been a lot of scary talk about low snowpack, but much of it has been HIGHLY deceptive.  The snowpack situation at the end of the winter (April 15) was really not that bad over Washington state and downright good over Oregon (see below). The southern part of Washington was roughly at 100%, while the northern portion was approximately 70-75%.

This situation is not unusual in an El Nino year.  The snowpack in early April gives a good idea of the amount of water available from melting snow, which fills our reservoirs and rivers.  The April snowpack was not bad at all...nothing like the bad years like 2015.   We had a warm period in late April through early May that caused a lot of melt, so the snowpack numbers dropped rapidly in some areas, but much of that that water was not lost.

In some places, the snowpack melted out a week or two early, which gave crazy low numbers for percent of normal snowpack for a few weeks--but that does not really mean much.

Take Blewett Pass.  The snowpack (blue line) was ABOVE NORMAL in early March compared to normal (red line), but warm weather resulted in  rapidly melt, with the loss of snow cover about a week early.

During that melt-0ut period, the observed snowpack was10-30% of normal!  But does that really mean anything?  Not really.  But certain groups and individuals are making a big deal about it.  Total precipitation at Blett since October 1, was modestly below normal.

The bottom line in all this is to show you that although some parts of the state have been a bit drier than normal, there is nothing exceptional going on.  Water supplies to cities should be fine. There is enough water for the fish and agriculture.   There is no emergency and even calling this situation a drought is a big stretch.

But there is more.  There is all kinds of talk of this being a dry summer.   The Seattle Times said that in the headlines, but it turns out they made a mistake, mis-quoting State Climatologist Nick Bond.   The last ensemble-based seasonal forecast (IMME) for precipitation over the summer (June, July, August) is for a WETTER than normal summer in our region.

And the latest European Center prediction forecasts precipitation over the Memorial Day Weekend (sorry), with the heaviest precipitation over northeast WA, exactly where we need it.

My take on all this, is that our state is going into the summer in relatively good shape water-wise and that there is no reason to expect drier than normal conditions and excessive wildfires.  Summers are typically dry here and there will be fires, but it is important not to exaggerate or hype the situation.

If one cries Wolf too many times, one day folks may not listen.


Will Viharo said...

As a pluviophile who left CA years ago to escape the relentless heat and sunshine (yes, I’m a freak of nature) I was dismayed by your last column posted just a few days ago, suggesting (facetiously I presume) that the Golden State and Evergreen State should swap designations due to reverse weather trends. This is music to my sweaty ears. Glad to hear you were indeed only crying wolf yourself.

Johnamar said...

I think in this case, as with many areas, the statements from government (and further hyped by the media) are intended to modify people's behavior.

To some degree, that's one of the government's jobs -- to prepare people and systems for coming adversity. One can argue that with a warming climate, things will eventually get bad. So I understand that as far as it goes.

But it needs to be based on current reality and not social engineering.

I think Cliff is right-on about crying wolf. People will be so used to continuous crisis that when things actually start to really become a crisis, people will not react as they should. It'll be the "yeah, yeah, we've been hearing about that for years and years and years" and then go on doing whatever they were doing.

Placeholder said...

But ... but ... Jay Inslee is running for president on a "global warming emergency," so why not lie to everyone? It's not as if he lacks a prior track record on the cheesy dishonesty front.

SJB said...

Thanks for the post. A legend on the Reservoir Storage graph would be helpful.

audioskeptic said...

I'm curious why there is a big "n/a" area in the east,middle side and roughly centered north/south axis. It looks to maybe include Spokane, parts of the Columbia valley, and a bunch of the palouse.

Just wondering why that area isn't reported? No usual snow, or what?

JeffB said...

No. WA State has an irrational fear of any natural phenomenon problem. It doesn’t matter what you bring up, doomsayers and killjoys will link it to whatever suits their obsessive fears and political goals.

Unknown said...

You must know that WA law defines a drought emergency and when to call it. It’s driven by objective measures, and not politics as you seem to be implying.

RCW 43.83B.400

Drought conditions—Defined—Intent.

It is the intent of the legislature to provide emergency powers to the department of ecology to enable it to take actions, in a timely and expeditious manner, that are designed to alleviate hardships and reduce burdens on various water users and uses arising from drought conditions. As used in this chapter, "drought condition" means that the water supply for a geographical area or for a significant portion of a geographical area is below seventy-five percent of normal and the water shortage is likely to create undue hardships for various water uses and users.

Jonathan Doe said...

As a bit of anecdotal evidence: in my recent higher elevation hikes in the North Cascades (upper North Fork Nooksack basin and upper Skagit basin), it certainly seems that there is plenty of snow left above 4000' feet, or so, depending aspect and tree cover. Snow appears to be deep (4-5'+) and continuous above 4500' just about everywhere on the west slopes of the North Cascades east of the foothills. This is, perhaps, a bit higher elevation for this accumulation at this time of the season than in recent years (which have had above average snowfall for the area). That said, based upon my personal observations, I cannot imagine the high country west of the Casacade crest of Whatcom and Skagit Counties being more or less snow free for at least 6-8 weeks, which seems quite normal based on my years of experience as an avid North Cascades hiker.

Placeholder said...

@Jonathan Doe, shhhhh! Never bring facts to a Seattle "progressive." They hate that!

bdfraz said...

There has already been 170 wildfires so far with 53% west of the Cascades. This is unprecedented, a new phenomenon. "We’re not used to having that many fires west of the Cascades and we’re not used to having that many fires early in the season.” Said Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.

17 years of fire fighting, I see the signs and they are not good. Dungeness SNOTEL reporting 0, ZERO water snow equivalent and only 36.7 inches of precip. Not enough for a watershed that already has insufficient water for existing needs.

It may not be as bad as 2015 but I, for one, will continue to listen to the experts and prepare for a dry year and hope it's not as bad as they predict.

Bruce Kay said...

Risk is the estimation of probability and consequence under conditions of exposure and vulnerability.

Risk is by definition prediction under conditions of uncertainty. If you are not predicting, you are not managing risk. If all factors are known and are certain, you are not managing risk. Risk is in the future and exists under conditions of uncertainty.

Considering that we are only at the starting gate of the summer, that conditions are dry and likely going to get drier, that for some reason our summers are becoming more filled with various forms of hazard due at least partly to dryness, is it not wise to create the awareness to spur readiness for a significant probability of a predictable high consequence hazard?

It is a risk calculation. I mean seriously..... do you really want to wait for conclusive evidence before acting?

You know...... the standard Republican strategy for climate change in general?

Risk is a skill, a discipline, a knowledge...... just like any.

It is not an inherent intuition, ready and available to anyone for anything. It has to learned and applied.

Weatherfreak said...

Cliff, you always seem bring a sane approach using facts, observation and historical perspective that we can all appreciate. As soon as this article came out, I told my wife, "I will wait for Cliff to post, before I get drought anxiety". We have a vacation place north of Plain, so we watch summer fire potential forecasts very closely.

Placeholder said...

Speaking of Oregon, on Tuesday we drove from Winnemucca, Nevada to Lakeview, Oregon. On Wednesday, from Lakeview to Hood River.

We've regulsarly visited Southeastern Oregon for 10 years. I have a tall stack of books about the region, and know people there. Southeast Oregon is soaked. Water in the ditches nearly to the roadway. Standing water all over the place. Shallow lakes are full, such as Summer Lake and Abert Lake, and many others. Lakeview was recently flooded; the locals were called out en masse to stack sandbags. There was rain along that drive, some of it heavy. It rained on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Lakeview to Hood River was also wet, and very green. The "progressive" drought-mongers don't get out much, nor do they ever bother to read any history of the high desert, where both short-term weather and longer-term climate is famous for its volatility. You see, facts and "progressive" climate alarmism don't mix, and when a cult encounters contrary facts it will always deny them.

Jason Babcock said...

I feel as if folks like Placeholder are disregarding the fact that Dr. Mass is not disputing climate change. The attempts to shift the discourse to "progressives" or "killjoys" is taking a message that advises temperance, and attempting to bastardize it into some right wing "attack the liberals" message. Dr. Mass is speaking to the media's attempts to capitalize on fear.

Eric Blair said...

You've already established many times that the oft - cited US Drought Monitor is woefully inaccurate, so why should this latest be any different? The constant screeching headlines via the MSM have severely damaged their credibility, but as long as the clicks keep coming, who cares? Follow the money, as per usual. I have yet to read anyone who predicted imminent doom later on admit that they were wrong - not one. They just move the goalposts and claim that they'll be right sooner or later. Hypocrisy reigns. "Cry Wolf", indeed.

Dan said...

Inslee needs a crisis in order to substantiate his run for President. If there is no crisis, one must be manufactured.

Placeholder said...

@Jason Babcock, I'm not ignoring Cliff's belief in AGW. In fact, I've in the past urged him to write a book about it, and said that I'd give it serious consideration. You are just one more snotty Seattle "progressive" who thinks it knows everything but actually knows very little. Tell us, what other empty lectures can you deliver to an eager world?

John K. said...

Eric - yes, and as long as these hacks are given the attention they crave, they will continue right along. On one hand, articles like this one are valuable in that they correct the mistaken. On the other hand, they are also "enablers" that just keep fueling the juvenile delinquents who pump this stuff out. There's only one way out of a dysfunctional cycle like this.. turn them off and leave them turned off! In short order, they would dry up and blow away in the wind.

Sailor36 said...

RCW 43.83B.400

Drought conditions—Defined—Intent.

It is the intent of the legislature to provide emergency powers to the department of ecology to enable it to take actions, in a timely and expeditious manner, that are designed to alleviate hardships and reduce burdens on various water users and uses arising from drought conditions. As used in this chapter, "drought condition" means that the water supply for a geographical area or for a significant portion of a geographical area is below seventy-five percent of normal and the water shortage is likely to create undue hardships for various water uses and users.
Note that "water supply" is not defined in the statute, and that "undue hardship" is a throwaway phrase that allows the declaration to be made at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats.
Imagine that, in Washington State, where all environmental regulations are solidly based on science.

Sulla said...

I would add that the media often will take the previous season and warn of a repeat. In this case we have not one, but two smokey, hot summers in a row. Ergo, this summer must also be hot and smokey. I've already seen a "how to prepare for smoke" articles.

I for one would LOVE a cooler, wetter than normal summer where I don't miss A/C for weeks on end. It would be a pleasant break from the past few years.

Unknown said...

Can you please add more details or clarify what your reservoir storage graph means? Are the urban storage reservoirs indicative of the situation in the whole state? The government monitoring page shows WA as having less than average reservoir capacity.

Second, why is the April 15 SWE more relevant than the current one? The current data shows a MUCH different picture, with most of the cascades below 50% and the olympics below 25% of normal.

As a layman, I would think that these two factors combined indicate problems to come. Reservoirs are in general low, and there is not a lot of new water available in the form of snow that will fill them.

Kenmore Reader said...

There is one graph (second to last), showing the US, Mexico, and the north of Central America, which may have an effect on the US. There seem to be serious drought conditions in southern Mexico from about Oaxaca into Central America. If the news reports are even partially accurate, those conditions are fueling a northward migration on the part of desperate farmers. Is there a source of accurate information about the water situation there and forecasts into the future?

AndrewM said...

Good point Sailor36. Note also that "normal" is not defined. Cliff's pointed out that our year-to-date rainfall is a bit low, but our rain-year-to-date less so.

BAMCIS said...

My shovel is saying there is soil moisture. IE, the pickaxe and rock bar can stay in the shed. We get a 2-3 week run of 90 degree heat and that will quickly change. Doesn't seem like an emergency but definately a delicate balance right now.

Pine said...

Here's something about the relationship between wet winters/springs and fire season. NOAA released a study in March 2019 regarding the devastating fire season after a wet winter/spring in 2017. The study used historical data about the Northern Pacific Jetstream, tree rings, paleoclimate information among other things to look at severity of fires after wet winters/springs. Here is an excerpt from the synopsis on the NOAA web page:
"Very recently, 2017 bucked a pattern seen in the longer record. The severe Tubbs and Thomas fires of 2017, a high-precipitation year, overrode the NPJ’s historical relationship with low-fire extremes after cool seasons of very high moisture. Extreme precipitation had compromised the Oroville Spillway earlier that year in addition to bringing about dangerous floods and landslides. Prior to modern fire suppression, the paleoclimatic reconstruction showed no cases of a high-precipitation year coupled with a high-fire year. If warming continues, as is the scientific consensus, then significant wet season rain and snow may not ensure a quiet fire season afterward."

Note "prior to modern fire suppression" and "if warming continues". I live in an area where the forest service is doing lots of thinning of overstocked forests ( due to modern fire suppression) and prescribed burning after thinning to mimic historical low intensity fires that kept brush and other ladder fuels in check. The areas treated several years ago look so much healthier and will hopefully prevent the catastrophic high intensity fires we've been experiencing. However, there needs to be much more of this type of fire treatment in the face of continued warming.

Placeholder said...

@Pine, I live in the Columbia Gorge, which has a mixture of public and private forests. In the past 5 years, there have been two big fires. One burned 53,000 acres of public and tribal forest on Mt. Adams, and the other burned 45,000 acres of public forest on the Oregon side. Meanwhile, there have been no big fires in the private forests.

The reason: "Environmentalists" prevailed on the feds and states to block salvage logging and thinning in public forests. The private forests have no such restrictions. Now, if "progressives" would ever actually look at facts and act on them, they'd study the private forestry practices and adopt some of them. Not the clear cutting, but the maintenance.

But, as always, you can always tell a "progressive" but you can never, EVER tell a "progressive" a single thing. The fire deaths in Paradise, CA last year can be laid directly at the "environmentalist" doorstep, but those people will never admit that they are wrong about a single thing.

nutso fasst said...

The Wallow fire in Arizona burned 538,049 acres, much of it in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The fire essentially stopped at the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

According to Jonathan Brooks, tribal forest manager, forest-management strategies unhindered by environmental litigation and drawn-out federal government processes helped check the wildfire.

For decades, the tribe has cleared young trees, logged larger trees and burned underbrush to replicate the natural burn-and-growth cycle of the Ponderosa pine forest. "Had this area not been thinned, logged, prescribe-burned, we wouldn't have been able to do a burnout operation here – so the fire would've been able to come through here unchecked," Brooks said.

Placeholder said...

@AndrewM, generally speaking, I don't think you can call weather "abnormal" until you get at least 2 standard deviations from the mean. And even that would probably overstate any "abnormality" by a major degree.

For one thing, the weather records don't go back very far, especially in the Western United States, where observations haven't been particularly regular for more than 150 years. Not even an eyeblink! Secondly, as it concerns temperature, the urban area readings have been biased upward by the well-documented urban heat island effect. Finally, there are regularly freak occurrences and always have been.

There is a reason why there are two fulltime weather networks on TV: the Weather Channel and Weather Nation. On the whole, the United States has some of the most diverse and volatile weather and climate on earth. The weather is always doing crazy things, and it always has. And there are cycles within cycles. This is especially true in certain regions, including but certainly not limited to the Great Plains, the Great Basin, and New England.

It is extremely hard to generalize, especially in the short term. The recent panic-mongering in this decade about the droughts in Texas and California would be cases in point. Those areas are marked by drought-drench cycles; anyone who even casually looks at the records we do have will see it. Yet, during dry and wet periods, we wind up being harangued by people who want to use the "abnormality," which is anything but abnormal, to push an unrelated political agenda.

The winters of the mid-1880s were so brutal across the northern tier that, among other things, cattle froze standing up. Ranchers went bust throughout the West; one of those winters, I believe 1886-1887, changed the course of Western history by marking the end of the open range. In the 1930s, it was dry not just in the Great Plains but in the Great Basin. Oregon's Abert Lake, in Lake County, dried up entirely, revealing a well-preserved pioneer wagon that contained the skeleton of a young girl killed by Indians (the tools of her demise were there too).

Well, think about it: The lake had to have dried up sometime in the 1800s, or why would it have been there? In either 1923 or 1924, a long wet cycle that had drawn settlers to the Christmas Valley, not far from Abert and Summer lakes, ended. In one year, 80% of the homesteaders left, and then the federal government ordered their cabins burned.


Placeholder said...


In 2011, we spent a week in that area. The water was so high that it nearly washed out the roads. By 2016, had reversed. It was dry as a bone, and Abert Lake was drastically shrinking, at which point the Portland Oregonian ran a big series about climate change and overuse of water by ranchers. Last week, we traveled through the same area, and it was wetter than even 2011; the town of Lakeview, a biggie for that area, was flooded this spring. There is standing water everywhere, and the lakes are filled up.

On the hot side, it was so hot in the summer of 1776 that the delegates to the convention that approved the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia hung heavy curtains on the windows to keep out the heat. Given the lack of sanitary water, they drank weak beer all the time because it was at least sterile. No AC, indoor plumbing, or mechanical laundries. For a bunch of hot, stinking drunks, they did pretty well.

At minimum, the people who fret about the "abnormality" of the weather need to at least crack open a history book. It's laughable that this state's governor would actually pitch a "drought emergency" because a part of Washington State has experienced a very normal deficit of water this spring. Cliff Mass is absolutely correct to allude to Aesop's "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" when pointing out the utter absurdity of Jay Inslee's latest descent into alarmism. Everyone ought to be laughing at the man, but he's the darling of the "progressives," who apparently have placed elementary facts and logic in a blind trust.

Pine said...

@Placeholder, plenty of private forests burn as well along with public land. As you point out, a key factor to prevent devastating fires is appropriate fire treatment - I.e. mimicking low intensity fires which were a regular part of the dry western forests by thinning and as I mentioned prescribed burning. Thank you for clarifying "not clear cutting, but the maintenance". I've observed that many people's resistance to fire treatment of forests - the maintenance you encourage- is because their primary exposure to forest "treatment" has been industrial extraction - clear cutting and even some salvage. A study ( don't recall whose) was done after devastating fires in north central WA which linked heavy salvage after high intensity fire actually contributed to mud slides and extreme erosion when the inevitable rains or spring melt hit. The forest service around where I live has been thinning and doing prescribed burns for years, but more needs to be done even in some western forests. DNR has also supported a forest thinning cost share program for years to encourage private forest owners to thin, limb, pile and burn their over-stocked private forests, something that many private land owners in my area have done, including me and many of my neighbor's. I believe you and I have a similar understanding of what needs to be done.

For the record, I consider myself a land conservationist, and a progressive. Most of the private forest owners who have thinned their forests in my area are also progressives, originally from the Seattle area. And we all support what the forest service is doing in our area to treat the public forest - although we don't like the smoke from prescribed burning, we know we need more " good fire".

Unknown said...

thank you, Cliff. All we ever wanted was the truth, no matter what it is. Sadly, our governor and the land commissioner are not capable of doing that.

Placeholder said...

@Pine, most "civilians" wouldn't know the details about forest management, and that would include me. But the "environmentalist" groups that pushed those bad policies knew the details, yet they pushed them anyway. And they were never be held accountable, because "progressives" cover up their failures and then walk away. I've seen it in a whole variety of issues and places.

I'm not arguing that private forests never burn. But they haven't burned where I live that I know of, and when you hear about this or that big forest conflagration it almost always starts in a public forest that's gone unmaintained because of "environmentalist" pressure to leave that forest unmaintained.

Beth Kuykendall said...

@Placeholder. WELL SAID. Exactly RIGHT. As a born and bred Washingtonian....we did not have these issues until Washingtonians lost control of their state.

Beth Kuykendall said...

The scariest part of your posts is not "we are progressives"...but "originally from the Seattle area", now owning "forests"............

Must be a fun hobby for you. Those of us who have spent 70- 100 years caretaking Washington look very sadly at people like yourselves spouting statistics like they are Irrefutable Law, and owning our "forests". You may have money, but you have no common sense or PAST HISTORY OF EXPERIENCE. You haven't done a very good job thus far. Under your care, Washington is becoming a dustbowl and not even recognizeable as the state I grew up in. I suggest you take a back seat and let the people who maintained the "evergreen state" AND KEPT IT GREEN AND LUSH...for many years before you came around to buy up the land...take back control.

Beth Kuykendall said...

Well said.

daniel said...

They were snow skiing this week end.....darn near June!

MAC in Bellingham said...

Beth Kuykendall said...

"As a born and bred Washingtonian"

Exactly what are the requirements for placing yourself in this elite group?

Sailor36 said...

Cliff Mass on dri Monson show:

Bob said...

Riddikulus! Leftists have no clue. Too many stupid pills.

Unknown said...

Amen to @Placeholder.

Rebecca Timson said...

The declaration of a drought in Washington does not depend on "unusual" circumstances. Much of the state is very dry during the summer, so "dryer than average" can be enough to tip the scales--especially with a growing population and new competitors(eg blockchain companies) ir water resources. Don't ignore the potential impact just because you want to make the case that this isn't a climate change event.

Rebecca Timson said...

Quite a few very conservative farmers hope for assistance in the event of drought,and would laugh at any argument that this is just about politics.

Placeholder said...

@Rebecca Timson, thanks for the usual Seattle "progressive" snottiness. There's no evidence whatsoever for your claim, but since when did you people need any evidence for anything? Your urban ugliness is enough.

Unknown said...

I agree with you. I was fighting fire in the woods years ago and while this is not as bad as a few years ago, I do think the fire danger this year is serious. Not as bad as what Franz suggests, but more serious than what Cliff says. Somewhere in between. I don't think we're going to average above normal precipitation.

Placeholder said...

@Unknown, wildfire danger is common east of the Cascades. It's a dry climate out here. If the winter is dry, then the grass will usually be dry and fire-prone. If the winter is wet, then there will be higher than usual growth of the grass, which will then dry out during the summer and be fire-prone. Wildfire is a threat here every year.