Dealing with Washington’s drought

Dealing with Washington’s drought
Although this year’s drought hasn’t hit growers too hard, some are advocating more long-term strategies during years with low snowpack levels. Photo: freepik.com

A drought was announced in Washington state in April, with 27 watersheds now included in the declaration. Although this hasn’t negatively affected some agricultural production, the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought is exploring potential changes to how the state responds to a drought once it has been declared. Some state Department of Ecology officials point to long-term strategies that allow faster and more effective implementation during a drought.

Much of Washington’s irrigation supply for agricultural use is dependent on snowpack levels. In years like 2015 when there was little snowfall in the mountains, severe droughts can occur. According to a 2016 Ecology report, growers experienced $100 million in losses that year as a result.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment warns that the Pacific Northwest could experience similar warmer temperatures resulting in precipitation rather than snowfall. If that were to occur “some farms will likely struggle to stay solvent despite adaptation interventions.”

In a recent Cascadia Conservation District newsletter, Washington State University Research Associate Sonia Hall with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources writes: “these changes affect our region’s agriculture and natural resources – and therefore our economy and communities – by impacting when water is available for irrigation, and resulting in longer growing seasons…”

However, so far this year growers seem to have evaded economic harm from the droughts. Washington Tree Fruit Association Communications Director Tim Kovis told Lens that the organization  hasn’t “heard much mumbling about the availability of water” from its members.

Droughts are declared through the Executive Water Emergency Committee (EWEC) after reviewing information provided by the state Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC), which consists of representatives from entities such as Ecology, the Bonneville Power Administration, the National Weather Service and the Office of the Washington State Climatologist. EWEC then recommends whether the governor should declare a drought in that watershed. A watershed is considered to have a drought if it is currently or projected to be at or below 75 percent of its average.

Because Washington relies so heavily on snowpack levels, droughts can be declared as early as springtime, in contrast to other states that declare droughts only when the effects are visible.

When a drought is declared, Ecology is given several options to get water to affected areas. One way is to authorize an emergency water rights transfer from a senior water rights holder to a junior water rights holder. Another is to allow the temporary installation of wells as an emergency water source.

Ecology can also offer water resources drought response grants to public utility, conservation, water and irrigation districts intended to reduce the impacts of the drought.

Managing the grant program is Ecology Water Resources Planner Jeff Marti. He told Lens the program is funded by the legislature, but the account can suffer a drought of its own. Right now, the program has $2 million total in funding. Each project can receive up to $350,000, but requires a 50-percent match by the applicant.

“We may not know if there’s going to be any money available,” Marti said. “That creates uncertainty. We’d like to have a continuing drought contingency fund available.”

Another problem is that the grant program is limited in scope. Projects funded by it can only be applied to that year’s drought, rather than long-term issues.

“There are a lot of proposals that are excellent water management long-term resiliency projects, but because they can’t get it done that summer…we don’t approve them,” Marti said. “We think it would be smarter policy to be more supportive of those longer-term projects. “

Another policy favored by Ecology, local government advocates and the Washington Farm Bureau are long-term water lease agreement that would be been set up through a pilot program under HB 1622 introduced during this year’s legislative session; the bill cleared the House but was unable to land a Senate vote.

Water lease agreements enable Ecology to free up water normally used for agricultural purposes. To address this year’s drought, Ecology has secured water lease agreements with 22 growers in the Dungeness Watershed. As part of the agreements, a total of 1,348 acres of land will not be irrigated between April 15 and September 15 in order to bolster the streamflow of the Dungeness River and help nearby fisheries.

However, the inability to obtain long-term agreements means that Ecology must wait until a drought has been declared before officials can search for growers willing to not irrigate land. By then, “that’s really hard to do if you aren’t going out and looking for those rights until April, because they’ve (grower) committed,” Marti said.

He added that under long-term agreements “we aren’t having to go into the watershed and just look for people. We already know who’s on board with the program.”

Among the bill’s advocates during the legislative session was Urban Eberhardt, public disclosure officer for the Kittitas Reclamation District, which is the sixth-largest irrigation district in the state. At a March 26 public hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee, he told legislators that the bill “will provide more flexibility for ecology to work with irrigation groups like ours.”

The Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 25.

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