Improving Washington’s drought response

Improving Washington’s drought response
A state joint committee may make recommendations to the legislature on how to improve the state’s response to droughts that affect wildfire season, fisheries and agriculture. Photo: freepik.com

As the state Department of Ecology has declared a water drought in nearly half all Washington’s watersheds, a joint committee may make recommendations to the legislature on how to transform the state’s response into a proactive – rather than reactive – system. Better distribution of limited water supply could have significant implications for fish hatcheries, farmers and state agencies managing trust lands. That may include reconsideration of a House bill proposed this session authorizing a pilot program examining long-term water rights lease agreements.

Under state law, a watershed is considered to have a drought if forecasts predict less than 75 of normal water supply based on historical trends and “the water shortage is likely to create undue hardships for various water uses and users.”

However, the state’s response is struggling to get ahead of drought conditions, according to Ecology Water Resources Planner Jeff Marti. At the June 26 meeting of the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought, he told members that while “the drought is often called the slow moving disaster…in reality it can unfold quite quickly in our state.”

As of last week, 27 watersheds have had a drought declaration. When this occurs, the state can provide emergency funds available for a limited time from sources such as the State Drought Preparedness Account. So far this year, the state has allocated $2 million, though Marti said “whether it’s going to be enough (is) hard to say.”

Not only can droughts contribute to the intensity of wildfires on both private and public trust lands where spark fires commonly break out, but droughts can cause harm in multiple ways to Washington’s agricultural community.

“If the industry is affected by drought, there will be a substantial economic impact to the state,” Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney told the committee at the meeting.

He added that fruits such as such as apples, pears and cherries “are all perennial crops – we cannot let orchards lie fallow in a drought year. It is essential that we have enough water to keep the trees alive, as is the case for some other perennial crops like grapes, hops and others.

“Many orchardists are looking at an investment…in excess of $50,000 per acre,” he added. “That’s a substantial investment in the millions of dollars for a typical orchard block (that’s) at risk when we have a drought here.”

Those costs have been seen in recent drought years such as 2015; according to a 2016 Ecology report, agricultural growers suffered $100 million in losses as a result. During that year’s wildfire season more than 1 million acres burned, making it the worst in state history. This year, the state has already responded to 425 wildfires.

When a drought is declared, additional water is often leased from water rights holders with a larger supply than needed. However, Marti said that “trying to find water in a drought is kind of like…living in a hurricane state trying to find a generator, you know, two days after the hurricane…we don’t want to go out in the middle of a drought…to try to find water to lease.”

HB 1622 sponsored by Committee Vice Chair Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) sought to address that issue by creating a pilot program exploring the feasibility of long-term water rights lease agreements. The bill also gave Ecology authority to issue drought advisory warnings. The bill was backed by Ecology, the Washington Association of Counties, the Association of Washington Cities as well as the Washington Farm Bureau. However, it failed to clear the Senate after passing the House in an 80-16 vote.

Committee member Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15) suggested at the June 26 meeting that members recommend the legislature reconsider the bill. “The earlier we can make a drought declaration, if we can get it before farmers grow some crops…they have a choice of whether they’re going to grow something or leave it fallow and sell their water.”

The joint committee has no further meetings scheduled, though Chair Judy Warnick (R-13) said another meeting could be called if the drought worsens.

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