Is Much of Washington State Experiencing Severe and Extreme Drought?

From the Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Cliff Mass

It is very unfortunate when government entities provide information that is incorrect and exaggerated.

Misinformation made worse by the willing repetition by click-hungry media.

There are few better examples of the dissemination of exaggerated and inaccurate information than the drought claims of the U.S. Drought Monitor, the combined effort of several U.S. Federal agencies.

The latest Drought Monitor graphic for Washington shows SEVERE DROUGHT over much of western Washington and southeastern Washington (see below).

And EXTREME DROUGHT over the western slopes of central and northern Cascades and extending into Bellingham.

To put it politely, this graphic is silly and totally exaggerates the situation.  

To quote from the National Weather Service’s official drought webpage:
a drought is a period of unusually persistent dry weather that persists long enough to cause serious problems such as crop damage and/or water supply shortages.

An EXTREME DROUGHT would be expected to have devastating impacts.

The current situation is very different.  A drier than normal past year for sure, but plenty of water for nearly all needs.   Few impacts.  Plenty of water for human consumption.

Let’s explore the current situation with real data.  The current streamflow is shown below.  Most locations observe near-normal streamflow,  including in the “Extreme Drought” area along the western slopes of the Cascades.  As many above-normal streamflows as below.   Looks pretty normal to me!

What about water supply?  Is there a lack of water in the reservoirs for our use?   Take a look at Chester Mores Lake, the main water reservoir for Seattle, over the past year.  The levels are down from earlier in the summer, but similar or higher than last year in early fall.   Plenty of water for human consumption.

None of the major cities in the region have any problem with sufficient water supplies for its population.  For example, Tacoma’s supply is green (ample):

Tacoma Washington Water Supply

Everett’s water supply outlook indicates sufficient water:

What about agriculture?  With all the drought going around you would expect poor crops.

But that is not what happened.   

The apple crop, the biggest of our state, is way up:

The grape crop?  It was knocked back by a cool, wet spring (no drought) and the expectations are for smaller crop (down perhaps 20%), but the warm/dry summer (perfect growing conditions) is expected to produce an excellent vintage for many varietals.

The Water Year Precipitation

To get a better idea of how serious the current water situation is, let’s take a look at the historical rainfall.  The water year runs from October 1 to October 1 and is perfect for examining the situation today.

Here is the plot of water year rainfall at Olympia going back to the 1940s.  A green line smooths out the year-to-year variability.  This year is on the low side, but certainly, many years have been lower.  Little long-term trend is apparent.

Yakima had a very close-to-normal year.

Spokane was near normal as well.

The historically driest location this year was Hoquiam, located on the very wet Washington coast.   Have not heard many complaints from folks in that region.

Finally, the precipitation at Seattle’s Tolt Reservoir was near normal historically.

Do these actual numbers suggest extreme drought?  Finally, what about snowpack?  The end-of-spring snowpack this year was well above normal, providing a huge amount of water for all uses!

The Bottom Line is that the last year was drier than normal in terms of total rainfall for several locations.  But it was well within normal variability and there was still plenty of water for human consumption and most agriculture.

To call the situation a severe or extreme drought is simply deceptive and wrong.  It is counterproductive in many ways and undercuts the confidence of citizens and local agencies.  The Drought Monitor graphic is done subjectively and is a real roadblock for rational decision-making.

Let me note that there is no basis for predictions of a dry fall.   September was much wetter than normal and forecasts call for bountiful precipitation (see forecast for the next two weeks from the European Center ensemble system).  Looks moist to me.    El Nino years CAN have wet falls.

Crying wolf has never been a good approach.

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October 4, 2023 2:18 pm

My time at Ft Lewis I saw that much of WA was dry most of the year, unless you are on the coast! It is wet as hell. Well, a damp, none burning hell, sorta like Honduras, only cooler. And fewer smelly hippies. They ain’t real welcome in Honduras.

Ron Long
Reply to  2hotel9
October 4, 2023 3:53 pm

My time at Ft Lewis was January to March, and the only days it did not rain were the days it snowed.

Reply to  Ron Long
October 4, 2023 5:23 pm

I was there May to November. Dust, dust, dust. Maybe just a dry year. Coastal was awesome got to do a lot of patrol training away from main post. Going east was a whole other terrain situation.

Kevin Kilty
Reply to  2hotel9
October 4, 2023 5:29 pm

I lived near Ft. Lewis for eigth year the rainy season can be early as August as late as November and last until May or even June. Get outside that rainy season and it is dry and hot.

Kevin Kilty
Reply to  Kevin Kilty
October 4, 2023 5:30 pm

gosh i wish we could edit still.

Rud Istvan
October 4, 2023 2:34 pm

Official climate misinformation/disinformation is unfortunate but not surprising. They have been doing it for decades. Some more provably false examples:

  1. Hansen of NASA GISS 1988 to Congress: sea level rise will accelerate.
  2. USNPS Glacier National Park signage until 2020: glaciers will disappear.
  3. 2014 National Climate Assessment chapter 1: weather extremes increasing.
  4. EIA LCOE 2015: onshore wind at parity with CCGT.
Curious George
Reply to  Rud Istvan
October 4, 2023 2:58 pm

Business as usual. Fear the drought. Don’t concentrate on Seattle crime.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
October 5, 2023 7:14 am

Bill Starbuck. Role model for the cause.

Kevin Kilty
October 4, 2023 3:13 pm

Because of a separate battle I am waging, I had a look at hydrographs around the area. The Columbia at Vancouver is running 102% of normal as of Friday last week. The Columbia drains most of Washington State. How could there be a severe drought with big rivers running normal or slightly above. By the way PacifiCorp has picked up on this and are making some small noise about it in a general rate case.

Ron Long
October 4, 2023 3:51 pm

Both Washington and Oregon modify their water availability by ignoring actual data and modifying the situation with “Future Evaporative Index Prediction” (paraphrased somewhat). This evaporative index presumes Global Warming/Climate Change/Burning Hell On Earth, and the like, and produces the desired EXTREME DROUGHT Index. The irony is that a lot of idiots believe it.

Peta of Newark
October 4, 2023 4:13 pm

Am I missing something here – or is the science & politics of this climate thing really such utter shyte that they need to so blatantly make it up?

Who do they think they are

Reply to  Peta of Newark
October 4, 2023 4:28 pm

Many of them are the useful idiots of the day but those always imagine they are something else.

October 4, 2023 4:54 pm

There has to be a better way of talking about the amount of precipitation an area receives. My neck of the woods receives about 14 inches average annual precipitation. It seems meaningless to hear people talk of drought because they only got 20 or 30 or 40 inches of precipitation. Yes it may be less than they are accustomed to but I would hardly call it dry or drought. Look at Yakima, my god I’m surprised people can even live there.

Reply to  Bob
October 4, 2023 8:15 pm

Well, we do and quite well actually. It does get hot , and dang cold in the winter, but there is something called irrigation that provides water for cherries, apples, hops, grapes, corn, winter wheat and more. I tried to post a pic from my vantage, but, I guess you will have to google the Yakima Valley or come visit for a wine tasting.

Reply to  stephani
October 5, 2023 7:55 pm

I have been through Yakima and remember they have the Yakima and Naches rivers but your annual precipitation is mighty low. I also spent a little time at the Yakima Fire Range, I think that is what it’s called, but we won’t talk about that.

Reply to  Bob
October 4, 2023 8:51 pm

Well, actually we live quite well here in the Yakima Valley. There is something called irrigation and canal systems that provide water for hops, corn, apples, cherries and other fresh fruits, as well as dairy and beef. I would post a pic from my vantage, but I guess you will just have to visit for a wine-tasting weekend to see for yourself. Before Thanksgiving, it does get pretty chilly come December and January.

Reply to  Bob
October 4, 2023 9:06 pm

Heeheehee Yakima isn’t that bad.

Dave Fair
Reply to  evelyn
October 6, 2023 11:03 am

Yes, it is.

Jim Masterson
Reply to  Bob
October 4, 2023 10:00 pm

Last year the smoke from brush fires was considerable–it lasted a week or two. This year, not so much.

Reply to  Bob
October 6, 2023 1:03 pm

Yakima Valley, October 2023

Jim Masterson
October 4, 2023 5:41 pm

Heh! Welcome to the People’s Republic of Washington State. Inslee, our governor, has been a climate activist his entire political career. Plus, our state was the last one to end COVID restrictions–even after Hawaii.

JD Lunkerman
October 4, 2023 5:43 pm

The Olympic Peninsula is a Rain Forest. I think that means it rains alot there. If you live in Western Washington it feels like it rains every other day and has since the dawn of time. It rains, it snows there is water everywhere you look. This is the dumbest thing I have heard in a long time. Washington State will never be in prolonged drought ever.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  JD Lunkerman
October 8, 2023 7:19 am

No, it doesn’t rain every other day, and doesn’t even seem like it. I’ve been living in Western Wa for 21 years (Whidbey Island). We get about 26″ average annual rainfall. Seattle gets about 36″, roughly the same as Dallas. And when it does rain it’s an all-day drizzle. Downpours are extremely rare, as are thunderstorms. It’s not unusual to go for 2 months without rain in summer.

Steve Oregon
October 4, 2023 7:29 pm
  1. Government bureaucracies at every level are corrupted with deceitful activists, cronies and incompetent workers facing no consequences for anything.
Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Steve Oregon
October 5, 2023 3:56 am

Nailed it! None could be worse than here in Wokeachusetts.

October 4, 2023 7:46 pm

this graphic is silly and totally exaggerates the situation

No, the graphic is a lie and those who produced it should be fired for putting out propaganda in place of the facts they were hired to communicate.

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Independent
October 5, 2023 3:57 am

More than fired- perhaps see it as criminal.

October 4, 2023 8:41 pm

Do people still tell their kids the story of the boy who cried wolf, or chicken little?

I doubt it.

Jim Masterson
Reply to  MiltonG
October 4, 2023 9:57 pm

I agree. How many times have they cried “wolf?” “The end is near,” and it never comes to pass.

October 4, 2023 9:51 pm

Isn’t the Okanagan desert just over the border to the north?

Kit P
October 5, 2023 12:14 pm

Well, we do and quite well actually. It does get hot , and dang cold in the winter, 

Ha ha, very funny!

The reason I returned to Washington State when I retired is the mild climate. I have lived many places but the longest as adult was on the east side of the Cascades.

Yes it is warmer and dryer in the summer. It is never hot and humid. It never really hot that you need A/C. It is cooler in the winter but never bitter cold. Except in the mountains it does not snow very much.

Because I have lived lots of places, I try to give advice when people travel. I do not try too hard because the I told you so moments are fun.

I have some friends who are used to the Yakima climate with cool deserts nights. They are planning a motorcycle trip to the desert southwest in the summer. I suggested some off the beaten path higher elevations routes which did not appeal to them. They were back in 4 days. It was too hot!

Cool semi-arid nights of 60-70 is good sleeping weather. A low of 90 to 100 means the unprepared for hot days will die.

I was unprepared for the drought this year. I spend half of the summer near the coast. It rains a little bit everyday. Usually I am only gone for 2 weeks but unforeseen circumstances I was gone for 6 weeks. Some of my hanging plants died. And some did fine. Not much of a drought.

October 6, 2023 12:28 am

My family farms in western Washington. This summer was a bit drier than normal, but there is definitely no drought. September was wetter than normal.
Nevertheless, we were offered “drought compensation” payments. The whole thing is a hoax.

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