Washington Logs One Of Its Driest Stretches On Record

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Every county in Washington experienced a much drier spring and summer than usual, with many breaking their all-time records. (Washington State Department of Ecology)
Lucas Combos,Patch Staff

WASHINGTON — Washington is headed for its first significant rain in months, but it will take a lot more precipitation in the months to come to make up for a dry streak that landed in the record books for much of the Evergreen State.

The Washington State Department of Ecology published a retrospective Wednesday, looking back at one of the state's driest periods in 127 years of records. Between March and August, total precipitation was the lowest on record for 17 counties, including Skagit, San Juan and Island west of the Cascades, and the entirety of Eastern Washington. Other parts of the state landed in the top 10 or top 5 driest over the same timeframe.

Many Eastern Washington counties recorded the fewest inches of precipitation from March to August since 1895 when records began. (Washington State Department of Ecology/NOAA)

During those six months, total precipitation across the state was just under 7 inches, a little more than half of normal, and making for the second driest on record overall. No part of the state landed near their normals.

"[F]rom March to August, nearly three quarters of the state experienced record dryness and the other quarter was 'much below normal,' that is, in the bottom 10 percent," ecology officials wrote. "Not a pretty picture even for the rainiest parts of Washington."

(Washington State Department of Ecology)

While burgeoning odds for another La Niña winter are cause for some optimism, officials caution its impact can be unpredictable and uneven across the state. For areas like the lower Columbia River, experts estimate it would take 11 inches of rain by April to end drought conditions — a degree of rebound that has happened fewer than a half dozen times in 120 years.

"The question is, will we have a full recovery before next spring," said Jeff Marti, drought coordinator at the Department of Ecology. "The odds for significant improvement of conditions are pretty good for Western Washington. But I'm less optimistic about the east side. Based on historic climatology, the odds for significantly ameliorating current conditions is about 1 in 5 across Eastern Washington. For a full recovery in Eastern Washington, the odds are about 1 in 20."

There is some good news in the near term, with fall rains on the horizon and wildfire conditions easing in Eastern Washington. The Washington State Department of Resources announced Wednesday it would restore public access to its lands east of the Cascades on Thursday, following an eight-week closure due to historic heat and extreme fire dangers.

"After months of moving from fire to fire, we are optimistic we have turned a corner," said Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands. "Our ability to reopen public lands in eastern Washington is a testament to the trust and teamwork between firefighters and the public. I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone who complied with this closure for sharing in the sacrifice necessary to prevent wildfires."

DNR officials estimate 1,750 wildfires burned more than 650,000 acres this year — an improvement from 2020 — and fire crews stopped more than 93 percent of them at 10 acres or less. Some statewide burn restrictions remain in place through the end of September, and Washington's drought emergency declaration will continue into 2022.

Read more about this "year of surprises" on Ecology's blog.

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