The Fallout of October Rains in the Desert

November 1, 2016
By Andrew McGuire
Photo: C. Chene via Flickr cc.

Photo: C. Chene via Flickr cc.

Here in the Columbia Basin, something extraordinary has happened; it rained a lot in October. Although not technically a desert, we are normally desert-like from June-October. Not this year. How much rain did we get? Well, in Ephrata where I live, we have seen over 2.5 inches of rain. I know, not much, even by Inland Northwest standards. But 2.5” is record rainfall for us – never have we seen so much rain in October – and it has had some consequences.

They don’t often admit it, perhaps out of respect for dryland farmers to the East, but farmers in the Columbia Basin prefer to get their water out the end of a sprinkler. They like to control how much and when the water falls on their fields.  When it comes out of the sky, it messes things up. The rains have delayed harvest of late potatoes, onions, dry beans and other crops. Although I expect all these crops will be harvested, the wet ground and crops probably caused some yield losses, and equipment traffic on wet soils likely compacted soils which will require additional tillage to fix.

Corn normally dries in the field here, but the rain, increased humidity, and clouds have slowed that process. Farmers have the choice of waiting until later when it dries, but with increasing risk of lodging (when crop plants fall over) from winter ice and wind, or harvest it sooner and pay drying fees. That is if a dryer can be found. We do not have enough drying capacity to handle it all.

Grasses and broadleaf plants have taken advantage of the abundance of rain in the Columbia Basin. Photo: A. McGuire

Grasses and broadleaf plants have taken advantage of the abundance of rain in the Columbia Basin. Photo: A. McGuire

One more ag-related problem: dryland and irrigated farmers who have not yet planted their wheat may be delayed or prevented from doing so, depending on the weather in the next few weeks.

If the extra 2″ of rain had fallen in November, I would not be writing this. But as it fell in October, with its plant-growth conducive temperatures, the rain is a significant boon to plants out in the shrub-steppe – their year of abundance has started.

Winter annuals will benefit the most. They normally germinate in the fall, survive the winter, and then do their growing in early spring. This year they are off to a great head start. The shrub-steppe looks like it normally does in April with a green carpet of grass and broadleaf seedlings beneath the dormant shrubs. Even the native perennial bunch grasses are showing some green. Expect lots of cheat grass in the spring, but native species should also do well unless…

Will record rain produce a bumper crop of cheatgrass? Photo:USDA, ARS gallery #D2416-1

Will record rain produce a bumper crop of cheatgrass? Photo:USDA, ARS gallery #D2416-1

Unless we have a very cold winter. I do not put much confidence in long-term forecasts so here are the various options and results:

  • Warm and Wet: All the plants currently growing survive and thrive in the spring. In areas where it is prevalent, cheat grass growth will increase fire danger after it dries out.
  • Warm and dry: There is enough water in the soil right now, along with what falls in the winter even if it is below normal, to promote growth of the already germinated plants. Cheat grass will still be an issue, but with somewhat shortened growing season.
  • Cold and wet: If the snow covers the seedlings, they will likely survive with the same results as warm and wet.
  • Cold and dry: If we get a cold snap without snow cover, some of the less hardy seedlings will die, even more if the soil dries out before the cold arrives.

Whatever happens, the rains were needed. Washington state is now the sole Western state without areas of drought (U.S. Drought Monitor), and for that we should be grateful.

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