Drought Persistent in Eastern Washington as Rain Deficit Draws Concern in Northwest


As drought season looms, Washington state appears to be faring better than its neighbors in the Pacific Northwest.

But droughts are becoming longer and more intense, causing concern among researchers and experts that the accumulating impacts of stabilized dry seasons could lead to accelerated reductions in soil moisture, streamflow and snowpack.

In the last 30 to 60 days, the region has seen below-average precipitation, especially in Idaho, western Montana, Eastern Oregon and northeast Washington, said Zach Hoylman, Montana assistant state climatologist, during a briefing Monday on the Northwest's drought outlook.

"These conditions, and long-term deficits, have contributed to further reductions in soil moisture, low stream flows — especially in the Oregon Cascades and in southern Idaho — and stable drought conditions."

Just over half of Washington is "abnormally dry" while 27% is experiencing severe droughts and nearly 7% is suffering from extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which was updated last week. These are improvements from the same figures earlier this year.

Currently, seven counties in Washington state are experiencing extreme drought: Grant, Kittitas, Yakima, Benton, Franklin, Adams and Lincoln. Most surrounding areas are experiencing moderate or severe drought.

While most of the eastern half of the state is experiencing varying degrees of drought, Western Washington remains protected.

The 2022 Water Year — which began in October and ended Wednesday — was Washington's 84th driest, or 45th wettest, according to the Climate Impacts Research Consortium, which is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to the most recent figures from the Drought Monitor, more than 70% of the Pacific Northwest Drought Early Warning System is in drought, while 22.4% of the region is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. Winter brought more water to Washington and Idaho but many parts of Oregon and Idaho recorded their driest three-month period on record between January and March.

"Drought has been a persistent feature of this landscape for well over a year now," Hoylman said.

While precipitation was slightly greater than normal in Western Washington between February and April, it's been "well above average" over the past month along the central stretch of the border shared by Washington and Oregon.

Storms in April helped the state's snowpack jump from 80% of average levels to 96%. This presented a challenge for farmers whose orchards and vineyards struggle under subfreezing temperatures, but an increase in snowpack will help bolster water resources in agricultural areas east of the Cascades.