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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Warm weather and low snowpack leads to Washington drought emergency

Mount Spokane, still covered in patchy snow, looms over forest and wheat fields in 2022. As Eastern Washington’s climate changes, snowpack will melt earlier, leaving the region with less naturally occurring water during the dry summer months.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

The Washington State Department of Ecology declared a drought emergency Tuesday, citing this year’s low snowpack and dry forecasts.

That means Washingtonians are gearing up for a parched summer, though parts of Tacoma, Seattle and Everett – boasting ample water reserves – were excluded from the declaration. A drought is declared when there is less than 75% of the normal water supply and there’s a risk of “undue hardship,” according to the release.

The declaration also frees up to $4.5 million in emergency response grants to help local governments and public agencies counter the effects of drought conditions.

Snowpack is a crucial element of Washington’s ecosystem, gradually melting in the spring and early summer and supplying rivers and streams with water for irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power, among other things.

“As our climate continues to change, we’re increasingly seeing our winters bring more rain and less snow,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in the release. “We depend on that winter snowpack to meet the needs of Washington’s farmers, fish, and communities during the dry summer months. And this year, it’s just not at the level we’re accustomed to and rely on.”

In Eastern Washington, the U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists the southeast corner and part of the northwest corner as “abnormally dry.” A section of Eastern Washington, mostly east of the Pend Oreille River in Pend Oreille County, is listed in a moderate drought. Conditions are generally worse in North Idaho.

The statewide snowpack level sits at 68% of normal conditions, according to the Department of Ecology, with the Spokane area hovering around 66% of normal snowpack and the southeast corner at 78% of normal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The declaration is a continuation of last year’s drought emergency across 12 watersheds that was scheduled to end June 30. However, thanks to an El Niño winter that brought unusually warm weather, the drought emergency will continue into 2025.