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Washington state declares statewide drought emergency following poor snowpack

Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE — People across the state held on to hope throughout the winter, keeping an eye to the forecasts and crossing their fingers for more snow.

Relief never really came.

Now, just two weeks since Washington's snowpack typically peaks, the state Department of Ecology officials declared a statewide drought emergency, bracing for a dry summer.

And conditions are expected to worsen in the weeks ahead, spelling trouble for fish and farms, drinking water and hydropower, said Caroline Mellor, Ecology's drought lead.

State officials expected a warm, dry winter thanks to an El Niño pattern pushing warm, tropical air into the region but the global warming trend exacerbated those conditions, drying the Pacific Northwest even further.

As climate change worsens, these sorts of droughts are becoming more common, Mellor said. State officials have declared drought emergencies 10 times over the past 35 years and six of them have been within the last decade.


Snowpack across the state sits at about 63% of its normal level, Mellor said. But in some areas, like the Lower Yakima Basin, it's as low as 46% of normal.

Precipitation as a whole hasn't been as lackluster, though, Mellor said. To date, the state has seen about 87% of normal precipitation.

The problem boils down to increasing temperatures, she said. "More precipitation is coming off as rain or (melting) too early, then it goes into the ocean and isn't available for when it's needed," Mellor said.

Last year, Washington saw about a normal amount of snowpack but a heat wave in May melted half of it in just three weeks, Mellor said. This year, with much less snow on the mountains, abnormally warm weather is expected to cause a similar meltoff.


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