Washington state rain no cure for drought, due to bleak snowpack

In early March, Scott Pattee was checking snow levels at Stevens Pass in Washington's Cascade Mountains. Drought conditions have grown worse since then.

In early March, Scott Pattee was checking snow levels at Stevens Pass in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Drought conditions have grown worse since then.

(Ashley Ahearn / KUOW)

Californians take note: It is possible to have rain — lots of it — and still be plagued by drought.

Just look at tiny Forks, Wash., which bills itself as the wettest town in the contiguous United States. As of Thursday, 26.6 inches of rain had fallen on the Olympic Peninsula hamlet since Jan. 1, nearly twice what Los Angeles averages in an entire year.

And yet on Friday, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee declared droughts on the Olympic Peninsula, which has three separate rainforests; as well as on the east side of the Central Cascade Mountains, Washington’s answer to Central Valley agriculture; and in the Walla Walla region, the state’s main wine country.

Because there’s drought, and then there’s drought.


“What we’re experiencing is essentially a snowpack drought,” Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology, told reporters Friday. “As of this very moment, the projected snowpack is 4% of normal in the Olympic Mountains.”

In the Central Cascades, snowpack is 8% to 45% of normal, and in the Walla Walla area, it’s 67% of normal. The long-range forecast calls for drier, warmer weather, Bellon said, and “conditions are expected to get worse.”

A statewide drought has not been declared in Washington since 2005, but the perilous snow levels mean other parts of the state are being monitored in case the emergency declaration must be broadened.

To get ready for a long, hot summer, officials have requested $9 million in drought relief funds from the state Legislature and are prepared to make temporary changes to water rights so that crops and fish have an adequate water supply.


Washington’s renowned outdoor activities will probably take a hit this year, with restrictions expected on campfires and the hunting and fishing seasons. Firefighters are gearing up for another blazing summer, after enduring a record fire season in 2014.

“We have man-made reservoirs,” Bellon said. “But we consider the snowpack in the Olympics and Cascades to be a frozen reservoir that provides a water supply.... Currently the snowpack statewide on average is 27% of normal. The forecast, which is disconcerting, calls for no snowfall in spring and for warming.”

Drought-stricken Forks, in the northwestern corner of the normally soggy state, is expecting rain Saturday, but that precipitation is expected to have no effect on the snowpack. According to the National Weather Service, Forks has averaged 119.72 inches of rainfall a year.

Lissy Andros, executive director of the Forks Chamber of Commerce, says her hometown hasn’t noticed any weather-related problems yet, but summer “will be worrisome,” in part because of tourists’ expectations.


Beyond dampness, Forks’ major claim to fame is as the setting for the bestselling “Twilight” vampire franchise. “Twilight” tourists want it to rain, she said, so they can get “the full Forks experience.” This year is particularly important because it’s the 10-year anniversary of the first book’s publication, and Forks is planning a bibliophile’s birthday bash.

“If people come and it’s not raining, they might get upset,” Andros said as she opened the book and began to read from its first chapter:

“In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds,” she read. “It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old.”

Rain or no, Andros said, the “Twilight” celebration will go on.


“It’s going to be a blast,” she said. “We’re having it come hell or high water.”

Better make that hell or low water.