Farmers face consequences of ‘exceptional’ Northwest drought

SPOKANE, Wash.– The Inland Northwest is facing its worst drought in decades. This is the first time the region hit Exceptional Drought, the worst category since the USDA established the Drought Monitor in 2000. In September 2021, 4 News Now dug into who the drought was impacting, how it happened, and how long it could take to get out of it.

Historic blow for farmers

In September, the Palouse region of the Inland Northwest is a hundred different shades of brown and tan. The rolling hills are in a transition between the harvest of late summer and the re-planting in the fall. Whitman County in Washington is the heart of the Palouse and the heart of soft white wheat production in the United States.

On a dusty mid-September day near the community of Ewan, Gary and Mark Bailey are planting next year’s winter wheat crop. Their 25-ton tractor pulls a two-trailer contraption to till the soil, plant the wheat seed, and fertilize it all in one stroke. If they needed it to, the whole setup could drive itself around the nearly 100-year-old barn in the center of the field. This isn’t your grandpa’s farming.

Even with new technology, however, farming in the Northwest must still overcome the same problems of generations past: They can’t control the weather. Gary Bailey saw his wheat crop go from a historic high in 2020 to a historic disappointment this year. Harvests of wheat, barley, and hay were at record lows in Washington. Wheat harvest in Idaho was down 25 to 50 percent of an average year. Some places saw total crop failure because spring wheat never had a chance to grow. Ranchers struggled with a lack of food and water. It’s an unfathomable whiplash.

Thanks to the drought, the soil moisture in the fields is as dry as it can get. On a windy day during the Bailey’s seeding operation, dust busts forth from behind the tractor. Far in the distance to the west, more plumes of dust rise into the sky. In the lower 48 states, the summer of 2021 is now the hottest on record, barely edging out the “Dust Bowl” summer of 1936.

Now, the drought threatens the crop for 2022. Clark Neely with Washington State University says that with low soil moisture it’s going to be a race to make up ground both in the short and long term for crops in the region to have a good outcome next summer. Canola may already be in trouble, he says, while winter wheat could overcome the dry start with big fall and spring rain totals. The outlook isn’t that rosy though. USDA forecasts for soft white wheat production, the dominant variety grown in the Northwest, are down 40 percent for 2022. Behind those numbers and figures however are real people, people who drive the economy of many Inland Northwest communities.

“Financially it’s going to be tough on people”, Bailey said. “We’re fortunate that we have crop insurance programs that help makeup part of that deficit but it doesn’t make up all of it.”

Bailey planted his winter wheat in mid-September anyway despite the lack of moisture in the ground, along with a significant number of others. Instead of chasing moisture below, they’re hoping for more from above. A rainy end to September is proving Gary right so far. 90 minutes up the road, rain in Spokane in the past month is more than what fell this summer or this spring. In fact, it’s almost equal to both.

How we got here

Drought can sneak up on you before you know it.  Everything was on track when winter turned into spring. Then, someone shut off the tap.

Rain in March, April, and May this year was 0.67 inches. An average spring from 1991 to 2020 got 4.44 inches. This past spring was the driest since 1924. It’s the second driest since records began in Spokane in 1881. Drought had already carried over in Central Washington from 2020, so the dry spring expanded it across the whole eastern side of the state and into Idaho and Montana.

Summer was even worse.

Rain was below average, even by summer standards. July and August combined barely saw a quarter of an inch in Spokane. The season got into high gear early with the hottest weather the Pacific Northwest has ever seen. Spokane and many other communities in the Northwest saw their hottest temperatures ever recorded.

July followed that up by becoming the hottest calendar month on record for Spokane, Lewiston, Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry, Potlatch, Chelan, Omak, Bayview, Priest River, Rosalia, Chewelah, and Wallace. Many others were in the top 5 or top 10 for the hottest month on record. The effect of this was to create a flash drought on top of the longer-term drought from the spring. By the end of July, almost the entire Inland Northwest was in exceptional drought.

While much of this drought can be blamed on natural variability, it’s important to realize that climate change is also contributing. A study published in August found that the extreme heatwave in late June was extremely rare, but may have been virtually impossible without the warming climate of the last several decades. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that changing climate in the Northwest contributes to what are called “compound events” such as extreme heat which contributes to drought. Drought spells are going to become more likely in the future and it’s the number one effect of climate change that the Inland Northwest will have to adapt to as the planet continues to warm.

RELATED: What the new climate change report says about the Northwest

Wildfires

Fire season, and the smoke that comes with it, have become an uncomfortable reality.

Whether it’s smoke from fires nearby or from as far away as California, the 2020s have become the age of wildfire in the West. A series of droughts has certainly contributed to these fires and their intensity. Much like the farmers’ soil sees its moisture sucked back into the atmosphere, the same happens to the forests and grasslands. This year, a hike in the woods reveals brown and sickly undergrowth. It’s a tinderbox in waiting.

As a result, acres burned in 2021 outpaced acres burned in 2020 until Labor Day. Major wildfires in the Northwest accounted for 20 percent of all acres burned in the U.S. in 2021 to date.

Water and wildlife

It’s not quite 1977 when the water stopped flowing over Spokane Falls, but the levels of rivers and streams in the Northwest are about as low as they get. That shallow and warm water can lead to the growth of toxic algae. Algae growth this summer led to closures on nine lakes in North Idaho, including parts of Priest Lake and Lake Pend Orielle. In Washington, testing found blue-green algae in the Little Spokane River near Chattaroy where three dogs died. Another dog got sick after swimming in the Spokane River where more cyanobacteria were found after testing. In Richland, the Columbia River was closed to swimming after blue-green algae killed another dog. As of September 30th, many lake closures are still in effect.

Fishing closures came early this year too on the Snake River in response to fish counts downriver in Oregon. Oregon, Washington and Idaho also saw an increase in whitetail deer deaths because of diseases spreading quicker in hot weather.

How it ends

So, how does the Inland Northwest get back to normal?

Ending the drought completely is probably out of the question. Although more rain fell in September than fell in many months, it’s going to take a long period of sustained wet weather to get everyone out of drought. In order to end the drought by the start of next summer, it would take close to an average year’s worth of rainfall in many areas. In other terms, the region needs 25 percent more rain than average to fall over the next eight months. A possible La Niña winter would be a huge step in making that happen, but even then not everywhere in the region could see that beneficial moisture.

RELATED: Another La Niña winter likely in the Northwest

West of Spokane to the Cascades the odds of ending the drought by June are 5 percent according to NOAA. East of Spokane into North Idaho, the odds rise to 10 percent in the valleys and close to 20 percent at the Montana state line. The most likely scenario is that drought improves in Idaho and western Washington and retreats into the Columbia Basin by next summer. Chances of improvement are high, but how much improvement we’ll see is uncertain. In places like the Palouse, Spokane, Lewis-Clark Valley, Central Washington, the impact of this drought is going to carry over in some form into the next dry season. The only fix for exceptional drought is exceptional rain, and while the odds are low, there’s always a chance for a change of fortune.