The drought afflicting Washington is loosening its grip amid a wet winter.
Conditions are improving to the best in about three years, according to reporting from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
About half of the state, including most of Spokane County, has had no reported drought, with conditions better each week since November. Conditions of only “abnormally dry” were reported in central Washington, northeast Washington and the Puget Sound area. That’s the lowest drought-related rating from the monitor.
“Right now we’re looking at our drought monitor and we’re sitting really good,” said National Weather Service hydrologist Robin Fox, who analyzes environmental conditions in the Inland Northwest.
The short bursts of rainfall in recent weeks have been beneficial for the region, Fox said.
It’s still too early to say how Eastern Washington will fare by the time summer and fire season arrive.
“By April and May, we’ll have a better idea what our winter was like, what our snowpack is like, and how (the snow) is coming off that will give us a better outlook for our fire season,” Fox said. “We have a lot of snow-building months to come.”
The previous year saw big swings between wet and dry conditions, Washington state Assistant Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said.
“Thinking back to January and March of 2022, we entered a period that was drier than normal, then we went into that really wet and cool spring,” she said. “That really eased a lot of the drought concerns.”
While the previous fire season lasted well into October, it was followed by an abrupt fall that included heavy snowfall in November and December, and above-average precipitation levels across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
“Best-case scenario is an above-normal snowpack by April, and we still have plenty of time for that,” Bumbaco said. “I’m optimistic.”
Additional rainfall in the coming months remains the “wild card,” she said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor examines soil moisture, precipitation totals and snow pack to determine whether an area is affected by drought. Washington state and much of the West have faced drought conditions during the past several years.
The Drought Monitor only recently removed the “moderate drought” status from the Columbia Basin, which is finally seeing some ground water increases in the soil, Fox said. The basin is prone to some of the worst droughts in Washington state.
This winter also marks the third consecutive year that a La Niña weather system has returned, creating cooler temperatures and more precipitation in the Northwest. La Niña has only appeared for three consecutive years twice in the past 50 years: once between 1998-2001 and 1973-76.
Eastern Washington suffered from the worst recorded drought conditions in 2021.
A large swath of Eastern Washington was under “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought” from May to December that year. It was the only time any part of Washington has been under exceptional drought in state history.
“Since then, we have been recovering, but it’s a slow process for the area because it doesn’t get that much precipitation,” Fox said. “This has been a longstanding drought that has been going on for years.”