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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: A perfect storm for flooding conditions, landslides

Cars drive through water on Upriver Drive, where the Spokane River temporarily overflowed its banks Sunday, March 19, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Cars drive through water on Upriver Drive, where the Spokane River temporarily overflowed its banks Sunday, March 19, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford Washington State University

As a warm sun hung over the Inland Northwest one day last week, it felt as though a giant lid had been yanked off the region. After a seemingly constant onslaught of rainy or drizzly days, the sky was blue, the temperature climbed to 60 degrees and we truly had a reason to enjoy being outside.

Not only did that balmy Thursday offer relief to sun-deprived humans, but also to our bloated rivers, streams and ponds. In parts of Eastern Washington and North Idaho, waterways were spilling onto roads, fields, parks and driveways. A full day with no precipitation helped keep water levels from surging even more.

Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived.

At the start of the weekend, another storm system moved in, dropping more rain and bringing water levels back up. By Sunday morning, the Spokane River in Spokane topped its flood stage of 27 feet. Along segments of the Palouse River, ducks could be seen skimming ponding water of overflow. The creek that runs through the town of Sprague flooded into homes and over roads.

After two back-to-back years of drought conditions, flooding may seem abnormal in our region. But the fact is, Washington is one of the more flood-prone states in the U.S., according to the state Department of Ecology, with costs of flood damage exceeding the cost of any other natural hazard.

Granted, Washington got pelted with an unusual amount of rain and snow this winter. Widespread melting of deep snow combined with rain dumps to push waterways to their brinks and beyond.

And yet, a blend of heavy rain and snowmelt is the No. 1 cause of flooding in the Inland Northwest, which typically occurs in late winter and early spring. Rain alone is the main source of flooding in Western Washington, occurring in late fall and early winter.

Simply put, our region is following a natural climatic rhythm. It’s just that the tempo is more intense this time around.

What to expect now that spring has officially arrived? Typical of springtime, warmer temperatures and more showers will follow. As more rain beats down on soils too saturated to drain away the water, we should expect to see more flooding and an increased risk of landslides.

Nic Loyd is a meteorologist with Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet. Linda Weiford is a WSU news writer and weather geek. Contact: linda.weiford@wsu.edu or nicholas.loyd@wsu.edu.

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