Drought Returns to Washington. Now What?

Summer 2019 kicked off on an upbeat note for Washington hikers: our favorite mountain trails were snow-free weeks sooner than in previous years. But like schoolkids let loose unexpectedly early, we are wary of a catch.

And there is a catch: it’s a drought.

Early season hikers take advantage of the dry weather, but there’s a catch. © TNC

According to the Washington Department of Ecology, spring 2019 has been the 13th driest spring of the last 125 years. It’s not just the dry side of the state that’s affected, either: Moss-draped Olympic rivers like the Hoh and the Cedar are at record low daily levels, too (the exception this year is southwest Washington, which is in relatively good shape).

Snowpack is a key signal

Drought is defined in different ways. In Washington, it means that water supply is less than 75 percent of normal. Typically, drought here is really a snowpack drought, since most of our rivers depend on the slowly melting high-mountain snow to sustain as much as three-quarters of their flow.

When snowpack shrivels, rivers shrivel. Agricultural communities, fish, and anyone else who counts on those rivers suffer (as of June, reduced water allotments are already in effect in Yakima). And of course, this year’s rapid melt out and already dry conditions portend a bad fire season, perhaps even worse than 2018, which choked the state with some of the worst air quality on the planet. Smoke is only a short term impact of wildfires. Erosion, loss of habitat, and economic setbacks affect land, rivers, and communities for years.

Dry Times

Drought is not new in Washington. But climate change will make it worse. Warmer winters and hotter summers are on the horizon. Precipitation patterns are shifting, too, with more falling as rain and less accumulating as river-sustaining snowpack. Dusty dry, fire-prone conditions are likely to become the norm.

This year’s descent into dryness has been quick. It was only early April when Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for the Yakima, Methow, and Okanogan Valleys. By May, snowpack in much of the state had shrunk to less than 50 percent of normal, and Inslee added 24 more watersheds— half of Washington—to the drought emergency.  By June 19, over half the state’s rivers were running in the bottom 10 percent of flow for this time of year.

Building Resilience

We do have some good news you can soak up. By tapping into science, partnerships, and community, the Nature Conservancy in Washington is exploring how we can make the Evergreen state more resilient to drought. In the Teanaway area, for example, we’re studying ways that river restoration can improve water storage and producing action maps that quantify potential water storage along each reach of river. In the eastern Cascades, we’re using leading edge science to explore another crucial question: what sort of forest canopy cover preserves snowpack best? And will a forest that helps snowpack linger longer also be the most resilient to fire?

Winter work will pay off for future summers as we learn about tree canopy cover effect on snowpack. © Hannah Letinich

We’re not alone in this work. In the Yakima Valley, the broad-reaching Yakima Basin Integrated Plan brings together water users with diverse priorities—such as agriculture, conservation, tribes, fisheries, and recreation. It fosters dialogue, community, and real solutions like increased land protection, enhanced water storage, and habitat restoration that help solve water -related concerns for all partners.

Just as in the Yakima Basin, working together is key. As a team, we can fight drought with tactics that slow climate change both at home and globally. We can reduce the impact of drought by conserving water at all scales and rethinking how human legacies on the landscape exacerbate climate change impacts. Agencies, scientists and legislators can work together to support good forest and fire management.

And we can help the Nature Conservancy pursue a path towards a drought-resilient future.

Banner photo © Kelly Compton