Experts: Another ‘toasty’ winter, another drought next year

Unwatered apple trees near Prosser stand dry and brittle.
Unwatered apple trees near Prosser stand dry and brittle. Washington Department of Ecology

The Eastern Washington drought of 2015 could be followed by the drought of 2016, state officials warn.

“The climate deck is stacked against us,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology.

A strengthening El Niño weather system is bringing the prospect of heavy rainfall to drought-stricken California, but it is expected to bring warmer-than-usual temperatures and less precipitation to much of the Northwest, said Nic Loyd, a Washington State University meteorologist.

A giant mass of warm water churning in the equatorial Pacific Ocean also could contribute to drought-like conditions.

“All in all, the odds are strongly tilted toward another toasty winter,” said state climatologist Nick Bond.

The first eight months of the year were the warmest experienced by the state since records began being kept in the 1890s, he said. The temperature was five degrees above the mean, he said.

During the winter, precipitation fell as rain in the mountains, reducing the snow pack accumulation that usually melts to fill rivers and provides water for crops.

Weather conditions in the upcoming winter are unlikely to be as extreme as in the past year, when some watersheds were half to a third of normal, Bond said.

Estimates are that the snow packs for the coming year will be 70 to 80 percent of normal. The state will be starting with a huge water deficit, Bellon said, as reservoirs are lower than normal.

In the Walla Walla region, which depends on the snowpack in the Blue Mountains rather than stored water, the underlying soil is so dry that irrigators are concerned that it will need a recovery period to get it back to its usual state.

Early in the year, the state predicted that crop losses from the drought would be about $1.2 billion. It will be a couple of months before the state knows how close that estimate was to reality, said Derek Sandison, director of the state Department of Agriculture.

Farmers have left land fallow, shipped cattle early and seen orchards produce smaller-than-usual apples, Bellon said. Although weather has cooled and some rain has fallen, apples will require irrigation for several more weeks.

In an organic farm in Zillah, cherry trees are blooming now, months outside their normal cycle.

“Nature seems upside down,” Bellon said.

The state is preparing now to deal with a reduced snowpack, she said. It expects to lease more water from farmers and lease it early in the year to help them make sound decisions on what and when to plant — or whether to plant at all.

Precipitation is difficult to predict, Bond said. The coming months are expected to be drier than usual, especially after the first of the new year. He put the chances that the winter will be as warm as the past winter at 10 percent to 15 percent.

“Here’s hoping I’m wrong and there will be plenty of water going into the next season,” he said.

Wildlife also suffered in the 2015 drought. Wildfires destroyed vegetation, and the lack of water reduced the amount of remaining vegetation available, said Joe Stohr, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

An outbreak of bluetongue disease has killed more deer than usual in some Eastern Washington counties, including Columbia and Walla Walla counties.

The disease is transmitted by small, biting gnats at water sources where deer gather. The outbreak should end with colder weather when the deer move away from gnat-infested areas or the first hard frost that kills the gnats. Hunting season should not be affected.

The drought killed mature sturgeon and also hatchery fish. Some 600,000 chinook salmon were released from hatcheries sooner than expected because of the drought, Stohr said.

He put the number at 1.5 million juvenile fish — including coho, steelhead and rainbow trout — that died at hatcheries because of the drought. Salmon returns could be lower for the next several years.

“It will take up to five years for Washington to fully realize the drought impact,” he said.

The state Legislature approved $16 million for drought relief projects this year and next, and about half that money should be available next year.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews