Gov. Jay Inslee is declaring that the state of Washington is experiencing a drought severe enough to be labeled an “emergency.” People who live in the Puget Sound area might be amused by this announcement, since despite unusually higher temperatures, the constant cloud cover and amount of rainfall continue to be their old annoying selves. In fact, 2014 was one of the wettest on record, with 48.50 inches of precipitation, about 30 percent above normal. This year is only a half-inch below normal so far. So what’s the deal? Why is there a “panic,’ at least in Olympia?
Well, it seems that there might be cause for concern due to two factors: Record, or near record, temperatures, and well below normal precipitation during the historically cold, wet months. From October 1, 2013 to January 31 2014 10.69 inches of rain fell; this was 10.28 inches below normal for that period. As I recall, there was only a brief period of snowfall at the airport, and it disappeared within a few hours; usually there is one or two good snowfalls a year, lingering on the ground for at least a week or two.
But then again, precipitation is rarely “average” from year-to-year around here; the “average” rainfall in Seattle in December is 5.35 inches, with the record low precipitation for the month being 1.37 inches in 1978—yet the very next year saw the record high for the month, 11.85 inches. Because there was almost double the normal rainfall from February through May, including a record 9.44 inches in March, 2014 seemed to be a very good year for precipitation amounts—or so it seemed.
This past rainy season saw only marginally better precipitation, and it was accompanied by record high temperatures. The average mean temperature was 5.2 degrees higher this past October, 4.7 degrees in December (including a record 66), and 3.1 degrees in January. It didn’t get any better in February; although it was well above normal in precipitation, the average low temperature was 6.1 degrees above normal, and 5.4 for the mean. March also saw significantly above normal temperatures.
Once you sift through all the variables, you discern an unfortunate trend over the past two years: The combination of above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation during the period in which nearly 45 percent of the annual amount occurs—November through January—equals considerably less snowpack on the mountains’ lower elevations, having disappeared into the ground, or as runoff into the Sound or evaporated and moved on.
It is odd to think about it, since just looking around everything is as green as can be; this isn’t California, after all. The snowpack situation is, of course, more problematic east of the mountains than the west; much if not most of the state’s agricultural production occurs there, and the barren landscape is heavily dependent on irrigation runoff. In the meantime, most people west of the mountains seem utterly oblivious to the “crisis”; and after all, we are “due” for a nasty, cold winter rainy season—and nobody likes that, except the people who are actually paying attention.