Severe drought conditions are expanding across the Inland Northwest, with forests and fields crackling under weeks of heat and rivers trickling with record-low flows, according to a briefing issued Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center.
All of Idaho is now under severe drought conditions and a third of the state – mostly centered in the Clearwater River area of north central Idaho, where huge wildfires have burned this summer – is considered to be suffering from extreme drought, according to information from the University of Nebraska-based drought tracking center.
The situation is less dire in Washington, where the western half of the state is not under any form of drought and much of the eastern half is listed as being abnormally dry.
But the desertlike dryness of Idaho has been pushing west in recent weeks. A thin belt of severe drought in Washington now stretches from the Canadian border to Oregon, including along the easternmost-third of Spokane County.
“It’s been creeping in our direction,” said John Livingston, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Spokane.
Reports issued by the National Drought Mitigation Center help guide the decisions of land managers and public officials, who have the power to issue formal drought declarations. No such declarations have been made for the Inland Northwest this season.
Although Idaho and Washington were relatively moist last year, according to climate records, the recent drought conditions are hardly out of the ordinary. Varying degrees of drought have been measured in both states during portions of each of the past six years.
This year’s dryness dates back to winter, when mountain snowpack melted a month earlier than usual, said Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist in the Boise office of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Then came summer, which saw one of the hottest Julys on record – in Spokane, the average temperature was 7 degrees warmer than the 30-year average. The Idaho panhandle cities of Kellogg and Sandpoint, along with much of western Montana, experienced the hottest July ever recorded.
“We had an extra month of summer this year, but we didn’t have the water to go along with it,” Abramovich said.
Each day, new record low flows are being registered on rivers across Idaho, Abramovich said. On Friday, at least five rivers, including the Salmon and the South Fork of the Clearwater rivers, hit new lows, according to gauging stations operated by the federal government. In northeast Washington, both the Kettle and Colville rivers are flowing with about a third of their average water right now.
Drought conditions are expected to ease a bit in coming months, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The next three months should see normal to above-normal temperatures and precipitation for the region.
Relief could arrive as soon as Tuesday, when a storm system is expected to roll through, said Livingston, with the National Weather Service.
“The hope at this point is it’s going to bring some good rains,” he said.