LONG BEACH — Despite a good chance of rain showers later this week, there’s little hope for a real break anytime soon from an official drought in Washington’s maritime counties.
A prominent meteorologist says there’s little to worry about.
Like most of western Washington, Pacific County was classified as being in a moderate drought as of May 28. The only exceptions west of the Cascades were Clark and Skamania counties plus parts of Cowlitz, Lewis and Thurston counties. Even these areas were classified as “abnormally dry.”
None of Washington was drought stricken at the end of May a year ago, compared to 43.5 percent of the state this year, U.S. Drought Monitor reported. Drought Monitor is a consortium of four federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Discussion of drought in this area always attracts reactions from some who consider misty conditions to be as helpful as rainfall. However, drought develops as a result of a lengthy pattern of below-normal precipitation, which impacts soil moisture.
Through the end of May this year the Peninsula received about 24 inches. While this might qualify as “wet” in some places, it’s 21.5 inches less than the Peninsula recorded in the first five months of 1998, for example.
Coastal rivers running low
In its daily streamflow update, the U.S. Geological Survey reported June 2 that flows were “much below normal” in all of Pacific and Wahkiakum counties, all of Grays Harbor County and about half of Jefferson and Clallam counties. “Much below normal” means there was more water flowing on that date in 90 percent of the previous years on record.
On Puget Sound, some western portions of Whatcom and Skagit counties have streamflows below 99 percent of the historical record.
Looking at Pacific County in more detail, the Willapa and Naselle river watersheds are driest.
The USGS measures the actual amount of water flowing in some larger rivers. Willapa River was running at 35 percent of its average flow on June 2, which was in the bottom 1 percentile of what it was in past years on that date. The Naselle River was running at 47 percent of average of June 2, in the bottom 7th percentile for that date. Elsewhere in nearby Southwest Washington, the Chahalis River near Doty was running in the bottom 3rd percentile and the Satsop River in the bottom 1 percent.
Smaller Pacific County watersheds right along the Columbia River — the Wallacut, Chinook and Grays — dried out more during recent sunny days. They joined the rest of the county with flows now in the bottom 10th percentile in the historical record, whereas a few days earlier they were running in the 10th to 24th percentile of dryness.
Don’t panic, says Mass
Despite drought conditions in far western Washington, mountain snowpacks are in good shape and there should be plenty of water to go around this summer and fall. “Water supply throughout the Federal Columbia River Power System is 91 percent of normal,” according to Northwest Fishletter, an industry trade publication.
This is enough for power generation.
The University of Washington’s Professor Cliff Mass, considered one of the go-to experts for local weather and climate comments, criticized a decision earlier this month to declare a drought emergency in Washington.
“Yes, our last water year [that started on Oct. 1, 2018] was on the low side, but more than 75% of normal. There are many other years with similar winter precipitation as our past year (16 years were drier)” since 1930, Mass wrote May 30 in his popular blog (https://cliffmass.blogspot.com).
“What about the coastal zone of Washington, which is in the center of the driest conditions? Similar story. This year was drier than normal, but nothing special. And even the coast was above 75% of normal precipitation,” Mass said.
He said the Washington coast and the rest of the West Coast could expect a return of precipitation before the end of this week.
However, the National Weather Service currently predicts only a chance of showers Thursday and Friday, with a return to partly sunny days and no rain this weekend.
Creates problems for fish
Washington last declared a drought emergency in 2015.
Adult sockeye, sturgeon and steelhead experienced excess mortality as a result, Bill Tweit, Columbia River fishery coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told NW Fishletter.
“Tweit said drought is a ‘cascading problem’ for fish,” Fishletter reported. “It starts with less water in the rivers and streams. That means hot summer temperatures will heat the water more quickly. And, since the snowpack melts early, it also means cooler water won’t be coming into the system throughout the summer.”
“It’s not the drought itself, but the increase in river temperatures that has us nervous — and its possible effects on upstream migration,” Tweit said.