What you might not know about Washington state and water

Washington's governor on Friday declared a statewide drought emergency, the latest area to throw up its hands over a lingering lack of water throughout the West.

Gov. Jay Inslee cited a historically low snowpack and rivers running dry. While no mandatory rationing has been ordered, officials have set the stage to ask for federal assistance as the situation worsens.


Here are a few points about Washington and water:

So, wait, isn't this is the home of rainy Seattle? How can Washington gasp for water?

Well, the adage of "rain staying mainly on the plain" does not exactly work here. Seattle lies on the state's western coast and is the recipient of Pacific-Ocean driven storms and wet weather systems. But there's a natural boundary that comes into play here: the Cascade Range that runs north to south just east of the populated coastline. The mountains cut off much of the rainfall, so the precipitation largesse does not reach the thirsty denizens of the state's eastern plains.

What's the biggest contributor to Washington's dearth of water?

In a word, snowpack: or the lack of it. Mountain states such as Washington, Utah and California rely on spring runoff of the snow that accumulates at high altitudes over the winter. The runoff -- or what some farmers call "free water" -- usually chokes streams and is directed into growing fields statewide. And so, while rain amounts have been normal, snow has been scarce thanks to higher-than-normal temperatures. Snowpack in the mountains has dropped to just 16% of normal levels statewide. Water deliveries have been cut to farmers in the state's most productive agricultural region, the Yakima Basin. Panicked state agriculture officials now project a $1.2-billion crop loss this year.

Has Washington experienced drought conditions before?

Yes. A statewide drought was last declared in Washington in 2005. But even since then, a lack of water has been an issue here. Scant precipitation often results in dry conditions that turn into fires. Last summer, fires in Washington and Oregon incinerated timber and range land across more than 1,200 square miles -- an area larger than Rhode Island. In March, Gov. Inslee declared drought conditions for half the state. While rainfall was normal, he said, the average snowpack was at the time just 24% of normal, and river flows were expected to be at their lowest point in more than 60 years. Since then, the situation has gotten worse.

But doesn't Washington's declaration show the irony of the ongoing drought?

Well, it's still "water, water everywhere" for some places in the state. Tiny Forks, Wash., which bills itself as the wettest town in the contiguous United States, is still getting lots of rain. As of Friday, 48.90 inches of rain had fallen on the Olympic Peninsula hamlet since Jan. 1, about twice what Los Angeles averages in an entire year. And while the rest of Washington  looks at a paltry snowmelt and bone-dry rivers, it's still raining like the dickens in Forks. "It's been a weird year, but we're still getting our share of rain," said Jerry King, a mobile home park owner who has been recording rainfall in Forks for the last 40 years. "We're just below normal for rainfall here, which is about 55 inches a year. Who knows, we may get a bunch of rain next year and go above normal. No matter what's happening elsewhere, Forks is still a pretty wet place."

So what goes into declaring a drought in the first place?

Here's Allen Kam, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle: "There are lots of factors, actually, and I don't think people – some meteorologists included -- understand what goes into a drought being declared. It’s not just as obvious as just poking your nose out the window and saying, 'Well, it looks green here in Seattle. We clearly can't be in a drought.' The decision involves both science and politics. When water users have difficulty getting their normal share, like the folks in eastern Washington, the governor has to take action. His domain is the entire state, not just the populated Western cities."

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