The drought conditions in Washington that prompted Gov. Jay Inslee last week to declare an emergency are likely to grow worse because of a strengthening El Niño tropical weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean, a weather researcher for Washington State University said Thursday.
El Niño, an ocean-warming phenomenon, may bring some relief in drought-stricken California, but it’s more likely to bring more heat and dryness to the Northwest, researcher Gerrit Hoogenboom said.
El Niño typically brings rainfall to central and Southern California but leads to warmer weather and less precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently announced that El Niño has been building strength since March, and there is a greater than 80 percent chance its climatic conditions will persist through the rest of the year.
“El Niño probably has not yet hit its peak,” Hoogenboom said. “It’s likely that it will be stronger in autumn and winter.”
That’s bad news for a state facing an already historically low mountain snowpack and depleted water levels in rivers and reservoirs, mainly east of the Cascade Range.
That has raised fears of crop and fish losses and a dangerous wildfire season.
Some intense rainfall earlier this month, including more than an inch that fell in the parched Yakima Valley, is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what was lacking in snowpack, Hoogenboom said.
“In California, the issue is lack of rain. In Washington, it’s a lack of snow,” he said.
Rain produces rapid runoff, whereas snow gradually melts into rivers, canals and reservoirs over an extended period, he said.
Of most concern is a weather pattern called El Niño Southern Oscillation, when warm ocean water in the equatorial Pacific moves like a bathtub full of water being tilted back and forth, he said. This interacts with the atmosphere.
Last Friday, Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency, clearing the way for Washington state officials to ramp up aid to deal with hardships from water shortages.
Inslee said snowpack levels were just 16 percent of normal.
State agriculture officials estimated a loss of $1.2 billion in crops this year because of dry conditions. And state wildfire managers expected blazes earlier than normal in the season and at higher elevations.
Some water managers in the Puget Sound region, including Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, aren’t anticipating water shortages. And state officials already have taken drought-relief measures in many areas to help protect municipal water supplies.
But farms are another matter. Some districts have had to shut off water to farmers based on seniority of water rights.
Irrigation districts in the Yakima basin – one of the state’s major agricultural regions – are turning off water for weeks to extend supplies, Inslee said.
Inslee said the state is seeing record low water levels in rivers, and water is being diverted from creeks to aid steelhead, chinook and bull trout. In some cases, fish are being moved to cooler waters upstream.
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