This piece comes to us from longtime Sunset contributor, Jim McCausland. A piece on NPR last week mentioned that California’s drought see...
Is there a drought in the Northwest?

This piece comes to us from longtime Sunset contributor, Jim McCausland.

A piece on NPR last week mentioned that California’s drought seems to be spilling into the Pacific Northwest.

Indeed, Racquel Rancier, senior policy coordinator at Oregon’s Water Resources Department, says she sees extreme drought spreading north and west from the southeast part of the state. But conditions vary widely. The U. S. Drought Monitor map above gives you an overview of the West’s drought problems in early May.

 Some drought-stricken areas in Oregon and Washington have had near-normal rainfall, but record-low snowpack. That presages low river flows this summer, which in turn means there won’t be as much surface water when plants, salmon, and farms need it most. For agriculture, fisheries, and fire managers, the situation will likely be bleak. Several counties in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho have already been declared drought emergency areas. But for most residential gardeners, the situation isn’t as bad as it looks.

In all three Northwest states, most reservoirs that serve major cities and towns are in fair to good shape. Steve Steubner, speaking for the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said that “reservoirs around Boise were nearly full at the end of last season, so it saves our bacon this year.” Dan Partridge at the Washington Department of Ecology, told us that most of Washington’s cities should have “no water supply problems” this summer. Dr. Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, said that it’s really too early to tell (May/June weather could alter Oregon’s water supply situation), but that he doesn’t know of any water utilities in the state that are currently planning residential water restrictions.

Back at the Oregon Water Resources Department, Rancier said that water conservation should still be on everybody’s mind. If you make water-saving changes in your landscape now, your garden will be more likely to survive if the drought should worsen.

A well-established, low-water garden can survive degrees of drought that would kill most exotic plants. But even drought-tolerant plants need regular watering the first year, so you can only plant them when that water is available. Now, in other words. Next year may be too late.

You can go native, like this garden:

Or exotic (but drought tolerant), as in these:

These plants are from the same vicinity where Howard Scott Gentry collected the clone subsequently planted out at the Huntington Botanical Garden. Photo by Greg Starr.

Plants, front to back and left to right: Viburmum ‘Davidii’, Carex morrowii ‘Aurea-variegata’, Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’, Viburnum ‘Spring Bouquet’, Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar…

Global climate drivers can play an interesting wild card here. At the moment, it looks as if a significant El Niño may be getting started in the South Pacific. If it does, next winter could be a wet one in Southern California. But Mote points out that if El Niño brings heavy rains without adding to the Sierra Nevada snowpack, it would be more likely to produce flooding than to help with the water shortage.

But these things are notoriously unpredictable: conditions in the South Pacific last year also seemed to point to an incipient El Niño, but it fizzled.

Best strategy: pray for the best, prepare for the worst.

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