A measure to improve the state’s response to drought that was introduced last year has finally cleared the legislature following several work sessions last year by the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought. ESHB 1622, a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) and requested by the state Department of Ecology, received overwhelming support in both chambers with a 79-19 vote in the House on Jan. 29 and a unanimous Senate vote on March 5.
Although snowpack levels are well above average in several parts of the state, other regions are significantly below the 1981-2010 median level. A water drought was declared last year for almost half of Washington’s watersheds – a threshold which is triggered when forecasts predict less than 75 of normal water supply based on historical trends. The decision is made by the state Executive Water Emergency Committee (EWEC) based on information from the Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC).
When a drought is declared, Ecology has a variety of options for directing water to that region from other areas such as authorizing emergency water rights transfers or allowing temporary wells.
Under ESHB 1622, Ecology is permitted to issue a drought advisory along with recommended voluntary actions to mitigate a potential drought. A private citizen would also be able to petition the state agency to declare an emergency, though Ecology would still make the decision based on existing criteria. When allowing for emergency water withdrawals, Ecology would have to prioritize the survival of irrigated crops, state fisheries and small communities dependent on water supplies affected by the drought.
Another major provision in the bill is the creation of a pilot program exploring long-term water lease agreement intended to protect public health, drinking water access and agriculture, a move favored by local governments and the Washington Farm Bureau. A report on the pilot is due to the legislature by the end of 2024.
“It will not only help in preparing communities, but it will help our agricultural interests be prepared in case of drought,” Republican Caucus Vice Chair Judy Warnick (R-13) said on the Senate floor. Warnick is chair of the Joint Committee on Water Supply During Drought.
Although none were opposed, some legislators offered tempered support. Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15) said: “I’m a little perturbed, though, that we passed this bill and we don’t really have a reliable source of funding for flood control, stormwater…(I) believe that that is very important in this changing climate.”
Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) said part of the problem is the lack of water storage infrastructure, combined with population growth. “We talk about people moving to Washington State…we’re not doing anything to increase reservoir storage. Right now, our storage for water is our snowpack, so in years when we have a low snowpack, we need to have additional storage. We need to be talking about creating more reservoirs or storage for those with growing population.”
The bill has not yet been sent to Governor Jay Inslee for signing.