How bad is the drought?

2015 is shaping up to be the worst of Washington’s statewide droughts

The U.S. Drought Monitor has now classified all but a smidgen of Washington state as being in a “severe” drought (99.99 percent) and says that more than 31 percent of our state is in an “extreme” drought.

It’s the first time the state has reached these conditions in a decade.

A river with very low levels stretches across photo, bridge above water. Exposed rock and shoreline is shown.

Exposed rock and boulders at Skykomish River Bridge.

Ginny Stern with the Washington Department of Health is a veteran of drought relief work. She says simply that this drought is “way worse” than the statewide droughts of 2001 and 2005.

The health department is seeing water systems starting to switch to emergency water supplies, driven by the demand for water created by 90-degree temperatures. In fact, the National Weather Service (NWS) reports that July has been the warmest month in recorded Seattle weather history dating back to 1890.

Next week, the health department will be sharing with county health directors a list of drinking water systems at risk of water shortages.

Stream flows, crop losses, fish issues are indicators of record drought

The impacts on our drinking water supplies are certainly not the only sign that 2015 is shaping up to be the worst drought in Washington modern history:

  • Almost 80 of our streams and rivers are running at below normal or record low flows.
  • The Walla Walla River went dry a week ago as measured by the USGS gauge near Touchet. This was caused both by the drought itself and by the large amount of water being diverted from the Walla Walla’s tributaries to fight the Blue Creek fire.
  • Ecology has curtailed the water use for almost 500 irrigators across the state to sustain stream flows. Some of these water rights date back to the 1800s.
  • Crops are at risk of failure in areas where farmers have had to stop their diversions. In the Yakima Basin, that means orchards, hay and alfalfa crops on some 2,153 acres. In the Dungeness Basin, irrigators’ choice to curtail water use from the Dungeness River because of low flows means they will lose their last cutting of hay.
  • Record-breaking warm water temperatures from “the Blob” in the North Pacific Ocean are increasing harmful algae blooms, closing shellfish harvests and causing unfavorable conditions for salmon and other marine life in Puget Sound.
  • The cities of Everett, Seattle and Tacoma have implemented the first stage of their water shortage response plans, which means they are asking customers to carefully manage their water use and make sure they are not wasting water.
  • The state Department of Fish & Wildlife is closing areas to fishing or restricting fishing at an unprecedented rate: more than 40 closures so far this year. This is to relieve stress on fish already struggling with high water temperatures and low stream flows.

Ecology, partner agencies focused on drought response

Ecology is working with the state departments of Health, Fish & Wildlife, Agriculture and Natural Resources to help relieve the hardships that are occurring due to water storages. Ecology will soon announce our first round of recipients for drought relief funds. Our grant program is supporting projects designed by cities, utilities and irrigation districts to help protect public health and safety from effects of the drought and to reduce economic or environmental impacts from water shortages. The Legislature authorized $16 million over the next two years for Ecology’s drought relief work, including the grant program.

No relief from drought conditions on the horizon

And the hot weather driving these shortages shows no sign of relenting.

Neither the state weather forecast nor the West Coast outlook offer much hope of relief from the drought in the months ahead.

The August forecast calls for more hot and dry weather in Washington and the long-term forecast is calling for a strong El Niño weather pattern to continue into next year. If accurate, this will mean another low snowpack and another year of drought.

Graphic of Washington state showing drought conditions. The state is largely colored orange and red.

The U.S. Drought Monitor this week classified 99.99%25 of Washington state as being in a “severe” drought. The red swaths on the map show the 31%25 of the state classified as being in “extreme” drought.