Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Palouse Drought is Just Ducky

PULLMAN, Wash. — It’s hard to believe in drought while driving around eastern Washington’s Palouse country on a rainy spring day.

Water seeps from hillsides and ponds in the low spots. Until mid April, tractors stood idle beside fields, equipment hooked up waiting to roll as soon as fields dry enough to support their weight.

This is a drought that could thrill a flock of ducks!

In fact, recently ducks have been seen bobbing on some Palouse country wheat fields; but with drier, warmer weather this weekend tractors sprang to life. In order to plant, some farmers have seeded around the wet spots, leaving them to dry out.

The problem is that the moisture doesn’t go down very far. Indeed, the Palouse is in a drought. As farmers wait for fields to dry enough to plant spring crops, some worry whether there will be enough moisture to carry the crop to harvest.

Old-timers say the Palouse never has experienced a complete crop failure, but droughts have curbed yields many times in the past.

In a normal year, moisture goes deep in Palouse fields and small grain and wheat and barley roots go down six feet or more to suck water up to the plant on top of the ground. But farmers are reporting to Randel Baldree, Washington State University Whitman County Cooperative Extension specialist, that there isn’t much moisture below the saturated surface.

Soil probes reveal dry dirt, sometimes as little as a foot beneath wet surfaces. Baldree says spring rainfall, especially in June, will be the key to this year’s crop on the Palouse. But even if farmers produce a normal crop this year, if the drought continues the 2002 crop will be at risk.

There are many definitions of drought. The phenomenon can be defined meteorologically, hydrologically, agriculturally or socioeconomically.

“Washington is experiencing a drought by just about every definition you choose,” says Charles Ross, a hydrologist with the Spokane National Weather Service. And the Palouse is no exception. All 39 Washington counties have been officially labeled as drought stricken.

Pullman, in the heart of Washington’s agriculturally rich Palouse country, received nine-10 inches of moisture between Oct. 1 and March 31. That’s 64 percent of the average since 1940. Pullman’s long-term average precipitation is 21.5 inches a year with only 7.15 inches (about 29 percent of the annual precipitation) falling between April 1 and Sept. 30.

This is a classic example of a meteorological drought. Rain and snow fall have slipped below 75 percent of normal. Forecasters say it’s very unlikely that rain can bring the area’s precipitation up to 75 percent of normal by fall.

Normal rainfall through September would leave the Pullman area five inches short of average for the 12-month period and the area would be exactly on the 75 percent of normal figure that usually defines drought.

It would take 12.5 inches of rain by the end of September to bring the area back up to average.

Defined hydrologically, the state is in an even deeper drought. Hydrology has to do with surface and subsurface water supplies. It is measured in stream flows and the amount of water in lakes, reservoirs and aquifers.

Hydrologically speaking, the drought extends over the entire Pacific Northwest where many streams are forecast to run at about half the normal volume through September.

Measures of agricultural drought — crop shortages caused by the lack of water — can’t be taken until crops are harvested, but predictions are that production of many crops will fall far below average. Orchardists worry not just about this year’s crop, but whether they will be able to keep trees alive to produce when the drought is over.

Socioeconomic measures also lie mostly in the future as Northwest businesses, industries and residents almost certainly will experience shortages of electricity and water. Food processors may experience shortages of food products — apples, potatoes, grapes and other commodities. They may find prohibitively expensive energy prices.

Add to these problems, the specter of harsh impacts on recreation, transportation and other facets of society.

Like those ducks that recently sat on seepage ponds in Whitman County wheat fields, most Northwest residents are largely unaware of the drought. It may not have affected them much yet, but soon they will be sitting in dust.

And then they will believe we are experiencing a drought.

Doug McChesney, manager of policy and planning for the Department of Ecology, cautions, “People tend to think, well, bad as it might be this year, in September and October the rains will come and it’ll all be over.”

But even with good fall moisture, the drought may not end this coming fall or winter. “Then we could find ourselves in an even worse situation,” McChesney says.

Recently comedian Jay Leno poked fun at a newspaper headline that stated what Leno presumed was obvious, “Rain Storm Ends Drought.” But McChesney said it takes much more than a single rain storm to end a drought. Even a flood may not do the trick.

“Floods and droughts aren’t necessarily incompatible,” he said. “You can have a flood in the middle of a drought.”

The drought will affect everyone in the Northwest, and just about everyone can do something — besides complain — about the drought. From farm field to suburban landscape to urban apartment, conservation now will lessen the effects of future consequences.

Drought information, including strategies for saving water can be found on many sites on the Internet and is available from WSU Cooperative Extension offices in every county of the state.

On the Web, try these sites, or use your favorite browser to pursue “drought:”

People who don’t have home access to the Internet can access the Internet through their local libraries.

– 30 –