Drought Information

California’s droughts have everything to do with dry vs. wet conditions, but as Washington state law defines “drought conditions” it has nothing to do with dry weather.

State lawmakers are responsible for setting criteria on the availability of disaster relief funding for any type of emergency. A drought emergency is to be declared when (1) the water supply for an area is below 75 percent of normal, and (2) the water shortage is likely to create “undue hardships” for water users.

California has a meteorological definition of drought and Washington has a hydrological definition. The state Department of Ecology is responsible for identifying conditions that meet the legal definition of drought so its staff closely monitors winter weather patterns and measures snowpack while consulting other state and federal monitoring agencies.

The Dungeness Snotel station is one of four in the Olympic Mountains and 30+ in the state. Data from all four Olympic Snotel sites are generally reported for the whole range rather than one basin at a time.

This makes good sense because the Dungeness Snotel is at about 4,000 feet elevation, more than 1,000 feet lower than the top of the watershed. The historical record for the Dungeness station since installation in 1999 shows that snow is normally melted out by early May, compared to early or mid-June for higher-elevation stations.

Amazingly, and to the disappointment of skiers, the massive dump of snow we got in Sequim in February 2019 was not predictive of what happened high in the mountains. Unlike storms from the coast that dump their load up high and leave us in the rain shadow with an attractive dusting of snow, this storm was like the “lake effect” variety that hit Chicago hard after building up moisture over the Great Lakes. Our big snowstorm came from the north, crossed the relatively warm Strait, and dumped its snow load at low elevations.

In the Pacific Northwest, drought is not about recent rainfall or the bounty of flowers and spring growth, but instead it’s about the snow you don’t see – or see less of every day – in the mountains. The state definition is consistent with this. Hydrologists and other snowpack watchers find limited delight in “unseasonably” sunny and warm weather in April and May, because it means the snowpack is melting and that could mean trouble by July or August for certain populations, human and otherwise.

The undue hardship listed as the second criteria in the state’s definition of drought is that anticipated for late summer by farmers who could run out of irrigation water and communities whose water supply depends on snowmelt.

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