We’re not going to complain that Washington didn’t get any snow this winter. Fine — it’s over. Something we can complain about, though, is that we didn’t get any meaningful precipitation of any type. Specifically, D.C. didn’t get enough rain this winter.
Reagan National Airport — D.C.’s official weather-monitoring location — measured 6.04 inches of precipitation from December through February, or 70 percent of average. It was the third-driest (and the least-snowy) since 2000. The kicker is that this dry winter followed an exceptionally dry fall in which Washington tallied only 4.16 inches of rain, compared with its typical 10.3 inches.
Alas, we are in a deficit, and it became glaring in this week’s U.S. Drought Monitor report, which paints a large part of the D.C. region — including the District itself — in a “severe” drought. Crop or pasture losses are likely, water shortages are common and water restrictions are often imposed in this category, according to the Drought Monitor, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In fact, in a total reversal of fortune, the D.C. region’s drought is now just as bad as California’s.
The capital might be experiencing a shortfall in precipitation this winter, but the West Coast arguably had way too much. The overwhelming amount of rain triggered one major dam failure on Lake Oroville and a destructive overtopping in San Jose. There’s so much snow on the Sierra Nevada peaks that scientists don’t have sticks long enough to measure it. At the Mount Rose ski area west of Reno, hydrologists shoved a 16-foot aluminum pole into the snow and still couldn’t touch the ground, USA Today reported.
As of Feb. 21, California shed all of its “extreme” drought, and much of the state is drought-free.
Meanwhile in the District, a measly 1.4 inches of snow fell this winter. While it’s still technically possible that it could snow again, the odds are highly unlikely, which means the capital will end the winter well short of its 14-inch snowfall average. D.C.’s rainfall total was 6.04 inches (precisely!) which isn’t exceptionally dry, but it does rank among the driest on record.
When a moderate drought was declared in November, we still held out hope for more precipitation during the winter months.
“The good news, if there is good news, is the time of year,” Jason Elliot, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, explained to us in November. “The fact that we’re missing water has less of an impact than if it were at the start of the growing season.”
He added that if we continued to get less-than-average rainfall through the winter, the situation would become more serious. And so it has.
In mid-February, the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., issued a cautionary drought impact statement. Drought conditions were present then, but not as significant.
“Given the time of year, impacts are fairly minimal,” the Feb. 16 statement said. “However, with warm weather upcoming and the potential for plant growth to begin, impacts may begin to increase soon due to seasonably low groundwater and streamflow conditions.”
In the following days, the temperature would spike to record highs in the D.C. region, including an incredible 80 degrees on March 1. And the plants have taken notice. All of the spring favorites — magnolia trees, crocuses and daffodils — are in full bloom, and the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin could experience the earliest bloom on record.
More concerning, though, is the all-but-certain impact on the region’s farms. It’s not just the pretty flowers that will begin to sprout early, and the soil won’t be able to provide enough moisture if the drought continues as is.
As of Feb. 27, the USDA reported that 44 percent of the pasture and rangeland in Virginia is in “poor to very poor” condition. This doesn’t bode well for the 2017 growing season, unless the weather pattern over the Eastern United States reverses in the next two to three weeks.