How the drought hit WA’s farms, forests, fisheries and drinking water

by Conrad Swanson at

Virtually every aspect of life in Washington suffered during last year’s drought. Groundwater wells ran dry, fields produced fewer crops, trees died in greater numbers, fish faced disease and famine, according to a study from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group

Now those sectors are bracing for yet another poor water year as El Niño conditions, compounded by climate change, produced well-below-normal snowpack. The state also his recently hit record high temperatures for this time of year. 

The state’s water woes will continue, even worsen, in the decades ahead, said Karin Bumbaco, interim state climatologist and one of the study’s authors.

The Climate Impacts Group study, the fourth of its kind, underscores the need for scientists to gather even more data, which would help cities, farms, utilities and scientists better prepare for the inevitable, she said. The group is a collection of scientists with expertise on natural, physical and social disciplines, which aims to help the Pacific Northwest better understand and adapt to climate change.

One of the first things to understand, Bumbaco said, is that drought is more nuanced than you might think.

“People tend to think of drought as just less rain than usual but there’s a huge temperature component,” Bumbaco said. 

Warming temperatures mean precipitation that once fell as snow will increasingly fall as rain (in turn creating water shortages). They also lead to drying soils, which worsen the region’s water deficit and exacerbate heat waves, Bumbaco said.

Washington actually saw a relatively normal snowpack in the early months of 2023, but a heat wave in May forced an early melt-off and sank the state into drought conditions, Bumbaco said. 

State officials declared a drought emergency across 12 Washington counties, local communities faced voluntary and mandatory water restrictions, utilities suffered from poor hydropower generation (shooting electrical bills upward) and the sudden melt-off sent the state’s sweet cherry growers into an early harvest, causing perhaps $100 million in losses.