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Washington State drought: What you need to know

Water is in shorter supply in much of the state, although Seattle is in okay shape for now


Washington—at least west of the Cascades—has a damp reputation, but lower-than-normal rainfall and a diminished snowpack have led to a much lower water supply than we’re used to. Yes, that means a drought.

Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency back in April for three Central Washington areas, but on Monday expanded it to nearly half the state: 24 out of Washington’s 72 watersheds.

Here’s what you need to know.

Is there a drought in Seattle?

There’s no drought state of emergency in Seattle. That goes for Tacoma and Everett, too. That doesn’t mean no drought-like conditions; it just means the water supply isn’t especially worrisome at the moment.

“These public utilities report that they have sufficient water supply for people and fish this summer,” read a release from the governor’s office. “Their water managers are watching the weather forecasts and encourage customers to continue to use water wisely.”

Where is there a drought in Washington?

There’s a drought declared throughout the state in 24 different watersheds. If you’re just looking for general areas, though, here are some rough, inexact regions (check the state’s map and list if you’re not sure, or you can find your watershed here):

  • The Olympic Peninsula: The vast majority of the peninsula, starting at the west side of the Hood Canal.
  • Southwest Washington: This includes the Chehalis area, but also the very southern parts of Pierce County. Pretty much everything south of the Nisqually River and north of Cowlitz River.
  • Central Washington: This includes areas around the Okanogan National Forest, the Wenatchee National Forest, the Lake Chelan area, the eastern edges of the Snoqualmie National Forest, and the Yakima area. Essentially everything due south of the Olympic Peninsula is in the state of emergency, too (Grays Harbor, Aberdeen, all the way down to the Oregon border).
  • Northwest Washington: Excluding the San Juan Islands, pretty much the entire top corner of the state is affected, including the Bellingham and Mount Vernon areas and the Mount Baker National Forest.
  • Parts of Northeast Washington, although it’s not as affected: The Colville area and around the Kettle River, just below Grand Forks, BC.
State of Washington

The following counties, according to the state, are at least partially affected: Benton, Chelan, Clallam, Cowlitz, Ferry, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lewis, Mason, Okanogan, Pacific, Pend Oreille, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Snohomish, Stevens, Thurston, Wahkiakum, Whatcom, and Yakima.

If you’re just looking for the watersheds, here’s the list from the Governor’s office: Chelan, Colville, Cowlitz, Deschutes, Elwha-Dungeness, Entiat, Grays-Elochoman, Kennedy-Goldsborough, Kettle, Lower Chehalis, Lower Skagit-Samish, Lower Yakima, Lyre-Hoko, Methow, Naches, Nooksack, Okanogan, Queets-Quinault, Quilcene-Snow, Skokomish-Dosewallips, Soleduc, Stillaguamish, Upper Chehalis, Upper Skagit, Upper Yakima, Wenatchee, and Willapa.

How bad is the drought?

According to the federal drought tracker, it’s mild to moderate: As of May 14, 36.5 percent of the state is abnormally dry (to the point where it affects and slows crop production), and 34.3 percent of the state is in active, moderate drought (to the point where crops are damaged and water-saving measures are advised). 57 percent of the state’s population is affected—which jumps to 85 percent if you include abnormally dry conditions.

It’s notable here that the federal tracker clocks some areas as experiencing drought that aren’t part of the state of emergency—areas like King County, that, while extremely dry, have enough water supply to support crops and marine life the immediate future.

What do I need to do?

All water-saving measures are voluntary right now, although it’s never a bad idea to use less water, especially if you’re in an area where water is in shorter supply. You’ve all heard the standard wisdom before: use water-heavy appliances efficiently, make careful use of water in your garden (maybe don’t water the lawn!), fix leaks promptly, take shorter showers, reuse water in your home where you can.

But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. A study earlier this month found that small lifts like this—known as “climate nudging”—can decrease support for a carbon tax, which is a bigger, more systemic measure.

Is there a burn ban?

As of publication, there is no burn ban in King County, Snohomish County, or Pierce County. According to the state Department of Natural Resources, wildfire danger is low in Western Washington and moderate in Eastern Washington right now.

You keep saying “watershed.” What is a watershed?

You’re in a watershed right now, but which watershed you’re in depends on how water is naturally distributed throughout your region—how, for example, snowpack from one location will flow into rivers, bays, and eventually into the ocean. This is why the snowpack level is such an important factor in water supply in our region.