Drought continues with fear of fire throughout Western Washington

Severe drought is settling in across most of Western Washington — including Kitsap County — where dry conditions raise the risks of wildfire, and low streamflows could impair salmon spawning this fall.

Western Washington is one of the few places in the country with “severe” drought.
Map: U.S. Drought Monitor, Richard Tinker, U.S. agencies.

Scattered showers and drizzle the past few days have done little to reverse a drying trend as we go into what is normally the driest period of the year, from now through August. As of today, the fire danger is moderate, but warmer weather could increase the risk substantially within a day or two.

The topsy-turvy weather that I observed across the Kitsap Peninsula last quarter (Water Ways, April 2) continued through June. Normally, the southwest corner of the peninsula near Holly receives twice the precipitation as the north end near Hansville. But that didn’t happen last month, when the monthly rainfall total was 0.61 inches in Holly and 0.83 inches in Hansville. Silverdale, about halfway between, received 1.11 inches in June.

Rain total for Holly, Water Year 2019. Blue line is current; pink line is average. (Click to enlarge.)
Graph: Kitsap PUD

For Holly, it was the fourth driest month in the record books going back to 1991. The only drier months of June were 2003 with 0.20 inches, 2015 with 0.31 inches, and 2009 with .40 inches. Hansville had six Junes that were drier, and Silverdale had nine.

Differences across the peninsula were also seen in April and May. Holly had 3.45 inches of precipitation in April, below the median average of 4.92, while Silverdale had 2.18 inches, also below the median (3.26 inches). Hansville received 2.27 inches, which was just about average (2.12 inches).

Rain total for Hansville, Water Year 2019. Blue line is current; pink line is average. // Graph: Kitsap PUD

In May, Hansville recorded above-average precipitation with 1.92 inches compared with a median 1.57 inches. Holly and Silverdale were below average, with Holly at 1.16 inches compared to a median 2.22 inches. Silverdale showed May with 0.95 inches, compared to a median of 1.57 inches.

Regionwide, drought conditions are worsening. In May, Gov. Jay Inslee added 24 watersheds to his emergency drought declaration, which now covers about half the state. The declaration was based on forecasts of low rainfall, melting snowpack and higher-then-normal temperatures issued by the Washington Department of Ecology.

Rain total for Silverdale, Water Year 2019. Blue line is current; pink line is average. // Graph: Kitsap PUD

“I appreciate Ecology’s work with partners around the state to prepare for drought and to position us to quickly react to those in need,” said Inslee in a news release. “As the climate continues to change, we must be proactive in taking steps to plan for those impacts.”

The 2019 Legislature approved $2 million to address the drought conditions.

“The emergency declaration allows us to expedite emergency water-right permitting and make funds available to government entities to address hardships caused by drought conditions,” said Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

Washington state drought: orange = severe; tan = moderate; yellow = abnormally dry
Map: National Integrated Drought Information System

Western Washington is beginning to stand out even more for its ongoing drought conditions this year, following moderate to heavy rains in Northeast Montana that erased concerns over drought in that area — although concerns remained from Western Montana through Eastern Washington and into the central part of the state.

Officials with Washington Department of Natural Resources are warning Western Washington residents about the extreme fire danger we’re facing. For the first time in years, the west side of the state may be more at risk than the east side, depending on what happens in the coming weeks. Wherever there is fire, there is smoke, and DNR offers a Smoke Information blog to help people contend with bad air that we may see this year.

Streamflows in Western Washington: orange = 10-24% of normal; brown = 5-10% of normal; red = less than 5% of normal; white = not ranked.
Map: U.S. Geological Survey

Long-term dry conditions are leading to low streamflows throughout Western Washington, including Kitsap County. Streamflows in Chico Creek in Central Kitsap, one of the most productive salmon streams on the peninsula, is roughly half its normal flow for this time of year, according to data compiled by Kitsap Public Utility District.

As of June 18, looking at seven-day average flows, 83 percent of the stream-monitoring stations in Washington state are below normal, with 54 percent listed as much below normal, according to Ecology’s monitoring website.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking action where it can, such as closing fishing in the Chehalis River and its tributaries in Southwest Washington to protect spring chinook salmon.

“Low stream flows decrease holding and staging refuges and elevate vulnerability and pressure on these chinook,” the agency said in announcing the closure. “Any encounters of spring chinook could subject these fish to stress, injury, or death.”

Other closures may be warranted before or during the fall salmon migration to reduce stress on the fish as they face low streamflows while returning to spawn.

For additional weather and climate information and long-term weather and climate predictions, check out the weekly “Water and Climate Update” (PDF 3.6 mb) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA.

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