April 18, 2024

Is Washington State REALLY In a Drought Emergency?

On Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Ecology declared a DROUGHT EMERGENCY for nearly the entire state (see map below).

As I will describe below, this really doesn't make sense.  Facts on the ground, meteorological observations, and common sense suggest that this declaration is simply wrong.  

But you decide after reviewing the facts.

If you look at the map, one bizarre feature is evident:  there is no drought emergency from Everett to Tacoma, which encompasses roughly 65% of the State's population.  

How can this be?   The weather systems controlling our weather encompass large sections of the state and meteorologically nothing special has been observed in that tiny metropolitan corridor.
Another strange observation is that this map is FAR more aggressive with drought than the perpetually drought-crazy NOAA/USDA Drought Monitor graphic (below).  The Federal Drought Monitor has NO dry conditions over more than half the State.  Drought conditions are only claimed for perhaps 20% of the state.

Why is a state agency putting out drought information in contraction to the Federal numbers?

As I will show below, the state has had only slightly below-normal precipitation this winter and the current snowpack is about 65% of normal.   The forecast impacts are minor at best and reservoirs are generally in very good shape.

But first a little philosophy and perspective.

We live in one of the wettest locations in the U.S. (see map).  A region that possesses a very modest population considering the carrying capacity of the land and one that generally receives much more precipitation than we need or can use, with the surplus water surging out into the Pacific.

In such a situation, does it REALLY matter that our precipitation is 10% below normal and snowpack is down a third?  Kind of silly really.
The Real Facts

    I wish the Washington State Department of Ecology would have reviewed the available weather and climate information before calling for the big "D."  And perhaps they should have studied the definition of a drought, as for example one provided by the National Weather Service:

“A deficiency of moisture that results in adverse impacts on people, animals, or vegetation over a sizeable area."

The big question is one of impact.  Or lack of them.

Another word that should have been looked up is emergency:

 "an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action"

Let's start with precipitation.  Below is a plot of precipitation over Washington State for the water year from October through March over the past 50 years.  The average is shown by the blue line.  This year is clearly below normal (about 90% of normal), but many years were far less.  No drought emergencies called for most of them.   And impacts of the dry years were generally very small.

Well, what about reservoirs?

Seattle's crucial reservoirs are well above normal (see below).  I repeat ABOVE normal.

But why stop with Seattle?  There is an informative website that provides the current levels for 19 reservoirs around the State (one additional reservoir is not reporting). 18 of the 19 were filled to 100% or more.

For agriculture, the Yakima reservoirs are important.  The latest water level information shows that the Yakima water reserves are nearly identical to last year and about 78% of normal.  The Bureau of Reclamation notes that those with senior water rights will get full allotments, while junior was rights should get about 63%.  Most agriculture should be fine.

What about predicted forecast river levels at the end of summer (mid-September)?   Around 80-90% for the Columbia and around 65-80% for the Yakima.  Much higher for rivers in Oregon.  Nothing serious. 

Finally, there is the current snowpack, which is around 65% of normal across Washington State.  So there is still substantial snow left to melt in the mountains, but less than normal.  

I talked to a former leader of the local US Army Corps of Engineers about the current water situation.  He noted that with the current snow and reservoir levels, there should not be any problems this summer.

Crop moisture indices are near normal (not shown).

The Bottom Line

    This winter has brought slightly below normal precipitation and modestly lower than normal snowpack (because of warmer than normal temperatures during this El Nino year).  There will be plenty of water for drinking and a modest reduction for some junior water rights folks in eastern Washington.    Most of the key crops (such as apples, cherries, and wheat) appear to be doing well.  So there is no reason to panic at this point.  There is no drought emergency going on.

And don't forget temperature....the other side of significant droughts.  Warm weather causes drying of the soil.   Thus, the forecast temperatures for the next month or so are critical.  The best extended forecast for the next month (European Center see below) is for COOLER THAN NORMAL conditions, which would reduce evaporative water loss, lessening the potential for damaging drought conditions.

Finally, there is a famous story about crying wolf....and it doesn't end well


  1. Cliff did you read the article about the declaration on Ecologies page? It's about money. They want money to pay off farmers not to use water. Or to give money to fish rehab projects. Mostly both. Why not declare emergency when perception is we are dry, they can funnel funds and shut down jr rights farmers without much of a fuss from the public. Ecology is run by climate activists and no longer wants large commercial farming and its all about fish. Yet they hurt small farmers more, it is the most frustrating thing. Ecology should be for all people of washington not just for the conservancy, climate activists.

    1. You are one step short of the real reason. It’s not just industry and farmers they are nibbling to death. It’s people. Their end goal is to reduce the population.

  2. One more thing. Since Inslee cannot declare an emergency to have total control (like covid) for event that "may happen" but ecology can, he uses it vicariously for a power grab.

  3. Hi Cliff, thank you for this informative post. Do you have any idea why this drought announcement was made? Is there money involved or something else?

    I have a separate question for you. Has this been an above average year for tree pollen? I don’t remember the pollen levels being this heavy the last couple of years. Thank you:)

  4. Few things:
    1) Why didn't you explain what the Washington State Department of Ecology's definition of drought emergency is? RCW 43.83B.410 Does a great job at what is happening and makes much more sense in this context. The press release is extremely informative.
    2) A former leader of the local US Army Corps of Engineers doesn't have data access to all the information in these decisions. I have Family that works there.
    3) As Washington State Department of Ecology says in the press release, it's NOT a crisis yet: “By moving quickly to declare a drought, we can begin delivering financial support to water systems with drought impacts, and work with water users to find solutions to challenges before they become a crisis,” said Laura Watson, Ecology’s director.
    4) Why didn't you explain why the Seattle Metro area wasn't included? It says right there in the press release: Excluded from the new drought declaration are limited areas in Seattle, Tacoma and Everett. Utilities in these cities have reservoir storage and water management strategies that make them more resilient to drought than other systems.

    1. Ben.... I have already talked about the RCW in the comments and how unreasonable it it. Second, the person I talked to is a very experienced member of the Corps and all relevant information is easily accessible. There is no secret information here. Third, using the term drought "emergency" is over the top and not reflective of the situation we are now it. Finally, I have talked at length about the Seattle situation and EVEN SHOWED THE GRAPHICS IN THIS BLOG. Other Washington cities and areas dependent on reservoirs and groundwater are also fine. There is no emergency with only minor impacts from a low snowpack, but NORMAL precipitation.

  5. Well given what you have said, it's fairly obvious that the governor will simply legislate more rain.

  6. Power corrupts. Once people in power get a taste for more power, they want - even need - that power. It's a drug. People in power got used to emergency powers during covid, now that covid is behind us they need to find other ways to regain that emergency power.

    Why is there no emergency in Seattle?! According a NWS tweet April 11, Seattle is at 86% of rainfall ytd and snowpacks in the cascades are looking to be in the 50-60% (AH!!! The sky is falling!!!! ...Please note my sarcasm. ). Yet no emergency here. On the other hand some quick searches and math find that Spokane on the other side of the is also at 86% of average rainfall ytd - definitely an emergency. Also note that Spokane is fed by the snowpack into the northern Idaho aquifer (69+% snowpack) and Washington rainfall has very little affect on Spokane water.

    Also 49 degrees north and Lookout pass Spokane local ski mountains will be open this weekend 2-3 weeks after they typically close. So, anecdotally at least, local snowpack is not melting as fast as normal.

  7. Cliff, it's always useful to challenge the conventional wisdom, but this blog post is unusually problematic. Please consider:
    1. The Everett-Seattle corridor may have most of the state's population, but it accounts for only a tiny fraction of our water usage. So this statistic doesn't seem very relevant to a state-wide drought declaration.
    2. To say that there's no drought in the state, except in the mountains, is like saying there's plenty of gas in my car, except in the fuel tank. The high country is where most of our precipitation occurs and where most of our water is stored. If it's dry up there, then our state is dry. With 65% normal snowpack in April, the dye is now pretty much cast. We are nearly certain to have water shortages this summer.
    3. Full reservoirs will help a little but not a lot. Most of our water is stored above the reservoirs, in the snowpack.
    4. A drought determination is a real-time statement. Forecasted weather does not and should not factor in. If we have an extremely cool and wet spring/summer, then the drought determination can be reversed. And the weather that you've forecasted (a bit cooler and drier than normal) wouldn't be enough to turn things around, even if proven accurate.

    1. Jerry... unfortunately, much of what you state is not correct. At this time of the year it is not true that most of the water is in the snowpack. Reservoir and dam storage is greater at this point. Some locations also heavily use ground water (e.g., Spokane). The temperature and precipitation of the next few months is very important. The die is not cast. Precipitation and cool temperatures can have an enormous impact on the situation this summer...cliff

    2. PS, I appreciate your sharing my comment.

    3. Cliff, would you expect that ground water supplies are better right now. I do. Last year with the massive early snow we had on eastside the ground was insulated from freezing hard and a lot of melt went into the ground and with the mild winter this year the rain we got went into the ground as well. Wells shouldn't run dry.

    4. Cliff, a couple weeks back I spoke with the State Climatologist, Nick Bond, who thinks that April-August weather in WA is likely to be somewhat warmer and drier than usual. At least, that’s more likely than cooler and wetter. Do you disagree with that? Is there any reason to expect the kind of spring and summer weather that could turn the situation around?

    5. Jerry.... Nick is no longer State Climatologist. More importantly, the best long-term weather predictions (ECMWF) extended to not agree with Nick's forecast...cliff

  8. Directly from ecology's page. All about money and control. Inslee speaks to the money part in his statement. Ecology speaks about control, "work with water users" in theirs.

    “As our climate continues to change, we’re increasingly seeing our winters bring more rain and less snow,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “We depend on that winter snowpack to meet the needs of Washington’s farmers, fish, and communities during the dry summer months. And this year, it’s just not at the level we’re accustomed to and rely on.”

    Ecology is making up to $4.5 million available in drought response grants to qualifying public entities to respond to impacts from the current drought conditions.

    “By moving quickly to declare a drought, we can begin delivering financial support to water systems with drought impacts, and work with water users to find solutions to challenges before they become a crisis,” said Laura Watson, Ecology’s director.

  9. I just knew (thankfully) that you'd have something to say about this.

  10. The problem is you did not take any time to understand the context. The Department calls it drought based on legislative definitions. You may not agree with them but they do not use the facts and figure you do because they are irrelevant here. You can actually go to their site and read about it, they have links to the legislation( for example RCW 43.83B.011) and point out excluding the area in grey on the map was excluded. Long story short is they declared because it meets the established definitions and this allows them to premptively release cash for extra water, irrigation options and fisheries if needed. This was weird take on a burreacratic process.

    1. I don't think you are correct. Check out the exact definition in the RCW you quote:

      "Drought condition" means that the water supply for a geographic area, or for a significant portion of a geographic area, is below seventy-five percent of normal and the water shortage is likely to create undue hardships for water users or the environment.

      It is NOT true that the area that are including is all below 75% of normal and the resulting water shortage will cause hardships.

      They did NOT follow the law.

  11. I'm a regular observer in a headwaters area of the north Cascades (close to Mt Baker,) and the CoCoRaHS 'data explorer' figures (both NOAA and PRISM) indicate very near normal ("median") precip: definitely well above 75% of 'normal'. All spring, when it hasn't rained our nights have been remarkably cold, with morning frost to this day (I submit 'frost reports; our lows have been in the high 20's when it's not raining). I suspect that the probability of an irregularly dry-hot summer is something like 50-50. The Pacific hasn't stopped sending summer "Pineapple Express" events our way; the odds of a wet summer in the PNW always exist, and we just may be due. (Anyone want to start "a betting pool"?)

    But as others have already mentioned, what actually IS certain (given the 'emergency') is "flurries" -- flurries of greenbacks.

  12. This declaration (like so many others regarding this subject), is just another in a long line of perpetual gaslighting of the public by the gov't agencies (and their quislings in the media). The difference this time is that the public is now fully aware of their perfidy, and is no longer listening. "The boy who cried wolf" is an apt metaphor.

  13. Is the problem here just the word "Emergency?" That's what I get out of it. In reading all the comments, where there is explanation that current conditions are considered something of a concern but not an imminent crisis, maybe this should just be called a "Drought Precaution Declaration," avoiding the sky-is-falling implications of the word "Emergency." Such a declaration would still authorize certain activities to be undertaken "to find solutions BEFORE they become a crisis," which is the intent of this action, as one commenter states.

    1. Mike... "emergency" is completely over the top and inaccurate. Even drought is wrong, because that implies serious impacts. Another terms is needed. ..cliff

    2. Yes - that was my point. Maybe the state's precautionary actions in this situation are fine, and this just takes a simple fix to refine our terminology to make it less polarizing.

  14. Your link to the reservoirs is missing Keechelus, Kachess, or Cle Elum. The most import reservoirs to the Yakima basin.
    This link suggests the picture is as rosy as you suggest: https://kachess.k2company.com/?fbclid=IwAR15hDIMOkuPcJz8_DLV8iVkmp6slx4firprkJ63KfD01ehbN3YXDyGzOg4

    Note: I'm not saying it warrants an "emergency" but your evaluation seems incomplete.

  15. Just came here to say that this post aged well 😀


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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