Droughts have reached historic levels in recent years in the Pacific Northwest, but scientists say this year could be considerably milder for Washington than for its neighbors, central Oregon and southern Idaho.

Nearly three quarters of the Pacific Northwest is parched, with 19% suffering extreme or exceptional droughts, according to February figures from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

In Washington, the worst droughts in early March were seen in Benton, Klickitat, Yakima, Kittitas and Grant counties.

Despite heavy precipitation and icy weather toward the beginning of the year — not to mention sporadic rain over the past week — water deficits over time are causing concern.

Drier years have added up, especially the past two, and water reservoirs are seeing annual shortfalls which could spell trouble come wildfire season.

“Part of the problem here is the long-term precipitation deficits that we’ve had,” said Nick Bond, Washington state climatologist at the University of Washington, during a press briefing on Thursday. “But there’s no indication that we will suffer through as warm and dry a spring as we had last year.”


On Jan. 11, average statewide snowpack was 133% of normal, according to Karin Bumbaco, assistant Washington state climatologist at the UW.

As of Thursday morning, however, the northern Cascades and other basins around the state started to lag in precipitation, so the statewide average dropped to 89%.

Last year, an unprecedented heat wave brought record-breaking drought, wildfires and heavy use of water reservoirs throughout the state.

In June, the blistering “heat dome” triggered record-breaking temperatures in Washington, Oregon and parts of British Columbia. Research later found it was a “once in a millennium” event made 150 times likelier by climate change.

By the middle of this century, climate change could trigger a heat wave of that severity every five to 10 years, but that’s not the new normal, Bond said.

“I would be astonished if we had anything of that severity this year,” Bond said.


By mid-June, Washington had responded to at least 410 fires on state lands, according to state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.

A brush fire in Chelan County covering more than 9,000 acres threatened a thousand homes, while a trio of fires in Okanogan County prompted evacuations in several areas.

Roughly a month later, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in Washington — though the order excluded Seattle, Everett and Tacoma because those areas have municipal water storage — to combat the state’s second driest spring on record since 1895. Water supplies were projected by the governor’s office to reach 75% of average.

Scientists believe this year’s drought won’t be quite as bad, but say precautions need to be taken to prepare for water shortages and wildfires.

While neighboring states could suffer greater drought this year, scientists pointed out that Washington, Oregon and Idaho all belong to the same region.

“We’re in it together,” Bumbaco said. “As a region.”

La Niña might be responsible for why Washington is poised to fare better this year in terms of drought, because it shifted the location and movement of a high-pressure ridge west of the Cascades — a significant change that may have impacted precipitation patterns.

But scientists said it’s difficult to say for certain.

“Stuff happens,” Bond said.