Even in late May, when T-shirts take over and thermostats hit a balmy 70 degrees, patches of snow cling to the top of Mount Spokane.
Snow persists on many Pacific Northwest mountains well into summer. It acts as a natural reservoir, melting as the weather warms and watering the thirsty low country when rains are few and far between.
Washington relies on mountain snowpack, especially during the hottest, driest months. While it may seem like a constant, snowpack is shrinking and climate projections suggest it will keep shrinking in the coming decades. As the reservoir diminishes, parts of the state will have to adapt. Water will be harder to come by.
“There’s going to be more of it when we don’t need it as much, and maybe less of it when we need it more,” said Nick Bond, the state climatologist and a researcher at the University of Washington.
States south of Washington have already had to adjust to life with less water as unprecedented drought batters the West.
The federal government is paying some California and Arizona farmers to leave their ground fallow as a water-saving measure. In 2021, the Nevada Legislature passed a law banning nonfunctional grass in the southern part of the state. Lake Mead, the modern marvel along the Colorado River that provides water to nearly 20 million people, has never been lower since the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation created it in the 1930s.
Eastern Washington isn’t facing the same extreme water shortages wreaking havoc in the desert southwest, but dry years have become a near constant. Even now, after a cool, wet spring, the U.S. Drought Monitor places most of Washington east of the Cascades in moderate to severe drought.
Last year’s lack of rain and record heat led to historically low yields for Palouse wheat growers. Drought has helped fuel massive fires that have destroyed wildlife habitat, incinerated homes and made smoke an annual expectation. Water concerns have trickled into local government – just last week, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance banning lawn watering this summer during peak hours.
Experts say the years of drought won’t be fleeting. Thanks to climate change, the West and Washington will slowly become hotter and drier.
“Everyone thinks Washington is Seattle on a rainy day and that’s just not true,” said Mary Verner, manager of the state Department of Ecology’s water resources program and a former Spokane mayor. “Water is increasingly scarce.”
Fewer snowflakes, more raindrops
The region’s farmers have been talking about summertime water shortages for 180 years.
Although the concern is old and familiar, the state’s relatively fortunate compared to places such as California, Nevada and Arizona.
“We just live in a much different climate than they do,” said Jeff Marti, the Department of Ecology’s drought coordinator. “They’re in a bona fide desert, no doubt about it, and decided to plop millions of people down there.”
Massive water diversion and storage projects have turned parts of the desert into fertile farmland and allowed for the growth of major cities.
Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix can only support millions of people because governments rerouted vast quantities of water – entire rivers and lakes in some cases – to areas that couldn’t naturally support a tiny fraction of today’s population.
In the southwest, too many people are relying on too little water from the Colorado River and other watersheds. Marti compared it to sharing slices of a pie. When governments worked out how to parcel out the Colorado River, they overestimated how much water was available because the previous decades had been unusually wet.
“The pie wasn’t really that large, but everyone thinks they’re entitled to the same slice,” he explained.
Eastern Washington’s water challenges are fundamentally different. The state doesn’t rely much on artificial storage.
“We’re not anticipating the same kind of water shortages that are really starting to rear their ugly head in California, Arizona, Nevada,” Bond said.
The Inland Northwest doesn’t have to find water for nearly as many people. For comparison, more people live in the Las Vegas metro area than in all of Eastern Washington combined.
Experts say decline in spring snowpack, not the over-allocation of a specific river or the draining of human-made reservoirs, is the biggest worry for the Pacific Northwest.
Snowpack is already decreasing. Between 1955 – when many southwest measurement sites were established – and 2020, snowpack in the West declined by about 20%, according to data from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Washington snowpack fell by about 30%.
“The general direction of the trend is the same regardless of the start date,” the Environmental Protection Agency wrote in a recent snowpack analysis.
Climate projections say snowpack will continue to decline in the coming decades, even though snowfall, precipitation and temperature will fluctuate up and down from year to year.
As the planet warms and the climate changes, total precipitation in Washington may rise slightly.
More of it will likely fall as rain, reducing the northwest’s natural snowpack reservoir, and fewer rains will come in the summer. Snowpack in the highest, coldest areas might not be affected, but snow that straddles the freezing line will.
Overall, Washington won’t have less water. Projections suggest flows on the Columbia River, tied in part to snowpack in the Canadian Rockies, will be higher on average.
But water’s needed most in the hottest months, when “the skies turn off and the sprinklers turn on,” Marti said. A shrinking snowpack, that melts earlier in the year, will lead to a smaller supply when demand’s highest.
“If it isn’t captured, it’s not going to be around in the spring or summer,” Marti said, “which is when we really need it.”
How has drought affected Washington so far?
Eastern Washington agriculture has already seen significant impacts from drought.
Last spring was the second driest in Spokane’s recorded history. The lack of moisture, combined with record-breaking temperatures, stunted the growth of dry land wheat and led to one of the worst crops for Eastern Washington farmers since the 1970s.
Central Washington fruit growers, who farm irrigated ground, struggled as the heat wave and lack of rain shriveled some apples and cherries.
Farmers expect 2022 to go better than 2021, but it won’t be easy for all.
Producers in the Okanogan Irrigation District, the water supplier for about 5,000 acres of ag land near Omak, are bracing for a lean water year.
The district’s two reservoirs, Conconully Reservoir and Salmon Lake, are at about 44% capacity.
Brad Armstrong, the district’s manager, explained that farmers used more water than normal last year to keep their fruit from withering in 100-degree temperatures. Winter snowfall wasn’t enough to refill the reservoirs. With the reservoirs low, the district will have to pump more water, which requires electricity and raises costs.
“We’ve got to try to conserve as much as we can,” Armstrong said.
Agriculture has been readying for less water. Throughout the West, irrigation systems have become increasingly efficient. Some growers may switch to more drought-resistant crops, too.
“Those guys aren’t stupid,” Bond said. “They know what’s happening; that they’re going to have to adapt.”
Drought also impacts wildlife.
Fish, especially salmon, suffer when streams get low. Shallower water tends to heat up quicker.
“We’re just seeing more mortality of native, coldwater fishes,” said Harriet Morgan, climate change coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Warmer waters can disrupt salmon spawning.
“They won’t continue into natal streams,” Morgan said. “The warm temperatures essentially act as a physical barrier.”
Reduction of snowpack could reduce the range of several species often found at higher elevations, such as Canada lynx and wolverines.
A drier climate can hurt wildlife in less obvious ways. Higher temperatures, the loss of snowpack and fewer summer rains help lengthen the fire season. Massive wildfires, burning bigger and hotter than they did historically, have damaged or destroyed millions of acres of critical habitat.
Eastern Washington’s shrub-steppe ecosystem, which evolved with relatively infrequent fire, has been hit especially hard. Wildfires continue to chip away at the sagebrush sea, each one removing some of the last remaining habitat for sagebrush-reliant species, such as sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.
James Pass, a silviculturist for the U.S. Forest Service who works on the Colville National Forest, said it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely how the drought has affected Inland Northwest trees, although anecdotally it looks like some died last summer.
In general, many of the West’s forests are overgrown after more than a century of fire suppression. Pass said there are simply too many trees in many forests, all sucking up water like straws in a drink.
Forest conditions, in many instances, are already far from ideal and adding in drought can increase susceptibility to disease.
“Now you’re adding another stressor on top of existing stressors,” Pass said.
Reasons for optimism
Water scarcity probably won’t affect everyone equally.
Jonathan Yoder, a Washington State University economics professor and director of the state’s Water Research Center, said that while the impacts of climate change are regional, the impacts of water scarcity tend to be local. Drought will hit individual watersheds differently.
Still, a decline in water availability could have broad financial implications.
“Having water where we want, when we want it, may become a little more expensive than it has been in the past, in relative terms,” Yoder said.
Yoder said Eastern Washington can mitigate the effects of drought.
“There is a lot we can do to adapt to changes in water security, water availability,” he said.
More efficient technologies and shifting habits can save water. As populations have grown, many cities have managed to cut back or maintain their overall use by decreasing the amount needed by each resident.
Investments in water storage can improve the likelihood of a stable supply during dry times. The problem, Yoder said, is most of the obvious investments, the “low-hanging fruit,” have already been made. Finding and building new storage systems will be expensive.
Many governments have been investing in water for years. Idaho has spent millions of dollars building infrastructure to replenish the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which underlies the Snake River in the southern part of the state.
Idaho is taking water from the Snake River in winter, when it isn’t needed for agriculture, and storing it in human-made lakes. The water in those lakes filters into the ground, recharging the depleted aquifer. The state hopes the project will make southern Idaho, the country’s largest potato-producing region and a dairy mecca, more resilient.
Washington’s Yakima Basin Integrated Plan is a wide-ranging effort to boost water security through a long list of proposals. Stakeholders are considering everything from fish passage and groundwater storage projects, to new water right transfer rules and conservation efforts. The state Legislature first set aside funding in 2013 for the 30-year plan.
Yoder said he’s optimistic that Washington can weather a drier future.
“When resources become clearly important,” he said, “often we’re able to rise to the occasion.”
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