It’s the time of year in the Northwest when we begin beckoning toward the sky, begging, praying and demanding a soaking rain.
This year, our collective calls ought to be at their most shrill.
Wildfires need snuffing out. Wells require a recharge. Next year’s crop of winter wheat — which has been hammered by dry conditions — needs a dampening to germinate.
Every part of Washington state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and some 38% of the state — in Eastern Washington — is in “exceptional drought.”
It’s the first time an area of Washington has been parched enough to qualify for such a distinction since the monitor began in the early 1980s, said Nick Bond, the state’s climatologist.
“Bone dry,” he added.
Those who track the water supply could hardly have predicted historic drought this spring. By April, the snowpack across the state was about 132% of normal, on average, according to Jeff Marti, Washington state’s drought coordinator.
“We were pretty smug in March, thinking, ‘Hey, you know, we’ll be in OK shape,’” said Bond, who is also an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington.
What followed were extreme deficits of precipitation and a late June heat wave so intense and prolonged that it shattered records statewide. Researchers have said heat so extreme would not have been possible without human-caused climate change.
“It’s been a different flavor of drought,” Marti said. “That heat wave really just kind of squeezed out the sponge.”
Drought roughest on farmers
The drought is uneven. Areas in Western Washington, in part of the Olympic Mountains and near Seattle are merely “abnormally dry.”
Southwest Washington is experiencing moderate to severe drought. East of the Cascades, things get hairy, with drought ranging from severe to exceptional.
Many farmers with senior water rights who rely on snow-fed streams to water their crops have received their usual allotments. But those reliant on rainfall or rain-fed streams have suffered.
Among those hardest hit are Washington’s wheat farmers. Most don’t irrigate.
But nature only teased this spring, said Ben Barstow, a farmer who works 1,000 acres near Palouse, who tired of seeing the seven-day forecasts promising a quarter-inch of rainfall, only for the moisture to disappear in days to come.
“That’s when the drought hammered us,” Barstow said. “We never got wet.”
By harvest time in July and August, wheat fields looked scrawny. The plants were less dense, often shorter and each head had fewer seeds than normal.
Barstow usually gets about 83 bushels of wheat for every acre. This year he harvested an average of 52.
Washington is on track to produce about 93 million bushels of wheat this year, the lowest output since 1973, according to Glen Squires, chief executive of the Washington Grain Commission. Last year, the state produced nearly 166 million bushels.
Drought caused other complications.
About 80% of the wheat grown in Washington is soft, white wheat. The variety is often exported to Asia to make sponge cake, among other confectionery. Buyers prize, and pay a premium, for wheat that has 10.5% protein or less because it offers weaker gluten and a more tender end product.
Farmers fertilized crops last fall, expecting rain and dense fields. Instead, excess fertilizer produced extra protein in the plants that survived.
“Double whammy,” said Mike Carstensen, a farmer in northwest Lincoln County. “You get the yield loss from the drought and you also get a discount in the market.”
Most farmers secured federally subsidized crop insurance, which insures up to 85% of a farmer’s typical yield, depending on how much they pay. The program won’t make them whole, but it will keep many going, said Gary Bailey, a Whitman County wheat farmer.
“This year is the year that makes you believe in buying crop insurance,” Barstow said.
Next year could be challenging. Soils are dry. It’s time to plant again. But seeds need moisture to germinate.
“Everybody’s kind of stressed out,” Bailey said. “We’re going to have to put it into the ground and wait for rain.”
At the Walker Creek fire earlier this season, Vaughn Cork, a fuels analyst with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said conditions were so dry it felt like he was walking ankle deep in moon dust.
Dry, hot conditions have kept firefighters busy throughout the west and in Washington state, where 12 large fires continue to burn. Nationwide, wildfire preparedness has been at its highest level since mid-July, Cork said.
“Typically these drought conditions are much more confined to localized areas and not spread from central Montana all the way to the Washington coast and down to Southern California,” Cork said. “Resources are as strapped as they get.”
Drought can fuel fire conditions, Cork said.
Vegetation that would be a heat sink when wet becomes fuel when dry. In drought, fires burn deeper into dry soils. Stump hole fires — when underground tree roots burn slowly — can last for weeks on end. Living firs and pines concentrate oils to survive, which can cause them to burn intensely, torching and throwing embers elsewhere in the forest.
After months of little rain and after the June heat wave, fire danger was as extreme as ever in many places.
“We were setting records all over the state on how dry and extreme fire danger was,” Cork said.
But stretches of cool weather have allowed some forest fuels to absorb more moisture.
Though conditions remain drier than normal, “in a relative sense, we’ve backed away from those extremes,” Cork said.
After the heat wave, temperatures in the Puget Sound region moderated, said Bond, the state climatologist. July was slightly warmer than normal; August temperatures were “very near” historical averages.
And so far this season, the region has avoided a dreaded east wind event like it saw over Labor Day weekend last year, when winds shifted and sent fires roaring into areas west of the Cascade crest.
“We kind of dodged a bullet,” Bond said.
Some wells dry up
On August 4, the well pump that serves Polly Godfrey’s Eatonville home and five others nearby began sucking mud — then air.
The well, which reaches to a depth of about 59 feet, had been in operation since 1996 and had never had troubles before, said Godfrey, who suspected dry conditions had drained the aquifer below.
The six households — all part of a community well association — decided to buy a 3,000-gallon tank and temporarily pump water from there, hoping to recharge their usual water supply.
For the month of August, the Water Buffalo company, which trucks potable water throughout Washington state, made a weekly delivery to keep the community sated, Godfrey said. On Sept. 1, the community managed to return to its well, but the ordeal cost about $7,000.
Her community isn’t alone.
Phyllis Hanvold, owner of the Water Buffalo, said well issues aren’t uncommon, particularly in the fall and before soaking rains begin to recharge sources of groundwater. But this year, problems started in early August and they appear more widespread, Hanvold said.
Wells can be finicky. Sometimes, they develop pump problems or require a flush.
Drought exacerbates issues, said Sheryl Howe, a hydrogeologist with the state Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water.
The health department does not regulate private wells or small groundwater systems with fewer than 15 connections, Howe said. But it does pay attention when it hears about problems with these wells, because trends could have implications for larger municipal systems.
Howe said the atypically dry spring stressed water supply in some locations and even in areas of “wet” Western Washington.
“What we’re seeing on the west side: Some of these shallower wells don’t have the recharge they generally do and they’ve dried up,” Howe said, adding that her definition of shallow has expanded from about 50 to 100 feet this year.
Water utilities reliant on wells in Clallam, Benton, Whatcom and Pierce counties each have reported failing wells or those at risk this year.
At least one community in Clallam County is relying on water trucking services for its water supply, Howe said.
When will the rains come?
Relief will arrive on its own timetable.
The chances of a rainy day jump in late September. The kind of rain we need, which is also the kind people complain about, is more often observed in October, said Bond, the state climatologist.
“How soon are the real wetting, soaking fall rains going to start? We can’t say much,” said Bond. “Fall is the hardest time when we have the least amount of skill with our seasonal forecast, especially with precipitation.”
National climatologists are predicting a weak, or moderate La Niña pattern, which is associated with a cool, wet winter in Washington state and could make for another good snowpack, Bond said.
For wheat farmers, well watchers and wildland firefighters, moisture can’t come soon enough.