Superdrought of 2015: Three things Washington must consider

By Drew Atkins
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The 2014 Mills Canyon fire burned more than 22,000 acres near Entiat. Last year featured the worst wildfire in state history.

By Drew Atkins

Washington faces what may be its worst drought in recorded history. The state isn’t on the road to sun-parched hellscapes out of Mad Max like some parts of California and the Midwest — not yet — but the coming months may serve as a wake-up call to new climate realities.

On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency for the first time since 2005. Washington was prepared to declare such a drought in 2012, but late season precipitation bailed the state out. No such luck this year. Snowpack on Washington mountains — a crucial source of runoff water throughout the spring and summer seasons, feeding rivers, irrigation systems and reservoirs — is 82 percent below regular levels as of May 18.

When it comes to Washington’s drought vulnerability, much has changed in the last decade beyond the snowfall drop-off. In the weeks and months ahead, Crosscut will offer wide-ranging coverage of the drought, featuring some of the state’s top environmental writers and experts. As preamble, below are three things Washingtonians should keep in mind when considering this drought, and especially those to come.

1) Drought response has been slow, and will likely be underfunded.

Over two months ago, the Washington Department of Ecology requested $9 million to fund drought preparation and mitigation activities. They’ve yet to see a penny. While it was possible to green-light those funds fairly swiftly, they’ve instead become entangled in Olympia’s biennial budget-writing dysfunction, for which there is no end in sight.

As conditions worsen, the request has risen to $9.5 million. According to DOE Drought Coordinator Jeff Marti, this is roughly the same amount they requested in 2005. Given the severity of the drought, and an array of other changes between these crisis years, legislators and climate experts agree it probably won’t be enough to do the job fully.

These funds will finance activities like deepening wells, creating new ones and buying water from those with a surplus to distribute to those in dire straits. It’s this latter activity, Marti says, where funding shortfalls will come into play. Each day without full funding raises more obstacles.

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Temperatures across Washington are at record highs.

“In terms of purchasing water for mitigation, that’s become more expensive, and it’s more difficult to find that water,” says Marti. He adds that every passing day makes things more difficult. “It’s getting so late in the season, many irrigators have already committed their water supplies.”

When contacted by Crosscut, multiple DOE officials were upfront that they had no idea how much they needed, but that $9.5 million was lowballing it. Why request less money than is needed? They would not comment, but one theory is DOE kept the request within the realm of precedent to get funds moving faster, and possibly outside the tricky biennial budget process. Legislative inertia could be avoided, and they could simply return for more funds when necessary.

If this was indeed the strategy, it’s not working out. House and Senate budget proposals differ on how to fund the request, so no bipartisan consensus currently exists.

Republican Senator Jim Honeyford – a member of the Senate’s Agriculture, Water & Rural Economic Development Committee – believes consensus won’t be hard to find between the House and Senate. However, asked if delayed funding will hurt drought response later this season, Honeyford says it probably will. Inslee’s declaration of a statewide drought emergency opened up more funding for the relief, but not the full amount needed.

“I believe it’s urgent that we get this funding on its way as soon as possible, so Ecology can count on it,” says Honeyford. “If there’s any conservation methods that can be put to work, they need some advance planning time.”

“It certainly would be beneficial to our work if we had funds in hand now,” says Dan Partridge, communications director for DOE’s Water Resources Program. “Any day now would be good.”

2) Droughts like this may become commonplace, and long-term planning is needed.

This year has been cast as the shape of things to come, particularly when taking into account the multi-year droughts in Oregon and California. Marti calls this year “a test drive for future conditions.” Partridge believes extreme snowpack declines “could become the new normal.”

Some argue the jury is still out. Scott Pattee is Washington's Water Supply Specialist for the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service, and has been studying the state's snowpack for 25 years. He calls the current drought “an anomaly,” and says any prediction of a “new normal” is premature.

Data bears him out. As the below graph illustrates, years with severe snowpack shortages like 2005 can be followed by an above-average year like 2006.

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GRAPH: A 20-year look at Washington snowpack levels on May 18, and how they stack against the state average for that date (100=normal). 

“People are on edge, because the extreme weather conditions have been creeping north,” says Pattee. “California is in year four of its drought. Oregon is in year two. I’ve never seen Washington have a drought that lasts for more than one year. But the forecast for next year is an El Niño pattern, which means a lot of warm weather. This may be our first multi-year drought period in a very long time.”

While he says it's too early to ring all the alarm bells, Pattee believes climate change could be altering the altitude at which precipitation freezes in Washington. Right now, he says, it becomes snow around the 3,500 foot level. That could rise to 5,000 feet, cementing  current snowpack problems into an ongoing issue.

Just as cities must make smart transportation investments before congestion reaches nervous breakdown-inducing levels, states must plan for worsening climate conditions. California and other drought-prone states are experimenting with long-term mitigation strategies, ranging from the expensive and experimental (desalinization, for example) to the simple and straightforward (investing more money in water storage).

But long-term strategies require long-term funding. With state legislators wrangling over how to handle severe budget shortfalls, it will take a sense of urgency on the public’s part to convince them to deal with the problems of tomorrow, not just today.

“We need more water storage, flat out,” says Pattee. “Some environmentalists hate to hear that, but it’s true. … It’s going to be expensive, and it's going to take years and years of planning and political maneuvering to get started. But that’s the direction we really need to start going. …  I’m not sensing a lot of urgency to get started.”

3) A sense of urgency may be hard to build.

Without doubt, this summer’s drought will be devastating for the state. Billions of dollars will be lost in crops, dried up streams will harm fish, and what may be Washington’s worst-ever wildfire season will destroy the lives of people and wildlife alike. “We’re expecting some pretty extreme conditions this year,” Marti says.

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Notable deviations from the average temperature are present throughout the state.

However, the harm caused will mostly remain an abstraction to many citizens, a series of sad numbers and images on the news. Western Washington cities like Seattle are in the forefront of the climate fight, but they also will be among the slowest to feel the effects of its changes. Mandatory water rationing is not in the cards for the foreseeable future. Most lawns will stay green. The price of some produce may raise a tad, but that’s all.

“For a lot of the state, I don’t think people comprehend what this drought is doing and will do,” says Honeyford.

The sluggishness in approving full drought relief funding, and the lack of long-term strategies to mitigate future droughts, can both be pegged to a lack of urgency. Honeyford says he’s heard very little discussion about the drought from his Olympia colleagues, including in his water-focused committee. Partee is pessimistic about the state’s chances of engaging in smart drought investment.

“These climate changes are so slow, and people for the most part have pretty short memories, especially politicians," says Partee. "The next good year will erase this drought from memory, just like 2005. It’s only people like me who remember. It’s such a political hotbed, the water storage thing, no one wants to touch it.”

Partee's pessimism is grounded in reality, but could it prove inaccurate in this case? The 2015 superdrought will likely be a harrowing experience for many state citizens, and could be followed by another, similarly terrible year. The months ahead for farmers, fishery managers and those in wildfire-prone areas — and the fires may move farther west than usual — may imprint themselves on Washington's psyche beyond the span of a seasonal news cycle.

Should they prove a rallying cry for environmentalists on the west side of the state, and the more conservative constituencies in the east, legislators may be forced to unite behind forward-thinking action.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at