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Rethinking Washington’s drought emergency response

Rethinking Washington’s drought emergency response

This year’s drought conditions have prompted discussions about how the state can better respond to the situation in the future. The state Department of Ecology (Ecology) in May declared a drought emergency in 29 counties, followed by another emergency declaration by Governor Jay Inslee that now applies to all of Washington except portions of the central Puget Sound region. 

When a drought is declared by the state Executive Water Emergency Committee (EWEC) based on information from the Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC), Ecology can authorize emergency water rights transfers, as well as provide funding to public entities.

However, Ecology is burning through its emergency funds appropriated for this biennium by the state legislature. In response to the 2015 drought the legislature appropriated $16.2 million in the 2015-17 capital budget for Ecology, and then $2 million in response to the 2019 drought within the 2019-21 operating budget.

Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13) is the newly appointed chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought. At its Aug. 17 meeting she told colleagues that this year’s drought “caught us off guard, so we learned a lesson.”

Typically, droughts are caused by low snowpack levels; although there was plenty of precipitation during the 2014-2015 winter, warm temperatures led it to fall as rain, resulting in severely low snowpack levels. Prior to the end of the legislative session, the state is usually able to anticipate the likelihood of a drought and appropriate funding to address it.

What makes 2021 different is that snowpack levels are well above the 1981-2010 average – in some areas as high as 150 percent; the drought conditions are due to historically high temperatures and dry conditions. According to Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco, the March-July period was the third warmest and second driest on record. However, by the time the weather pattern became apparent the legislature had already adjourned, appropriating just $750,000 in emergency funds for Ecology. 

Ecology Policy and Program Manager Dave Christensen told the committee that when the agency funding request was submitted, it “did not envision that we would be in a situation that would be…so dire for so many people.”

The state’s traditional understanding of a drought may have also caused a delay in an emergency declaration in areas dominated by dryland agriculture, such as wheat growers. A drought is typically declared when a region is receiving or is expected to receive less than 75 percent of its usual water supply or when water users are expected to undergo “undue hardship” due to a shortage.

Yet, some feel the criteria needs broadening after Ecology in June rejected a request by the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) for a drought declaration in parts of Eastern Washington, allowing a transfer of water rights to their land. Ecology denied the request, noting that less than eight percent of wheatland in the state is irrigated. Although a drought was declared a month later, Washington Policy Center Agricultural Director Pam Lewison told Lens it’s too late for much of the wheat crop.

“If that declaration had been made quickly, those growers could have gone in to Ecology and asked for those emergency seasonal transfers of water from their irrigated crops to their grain crops so they had sufficient water in the soil,” she said.

WAWG Executive Director Michelle Hennings told Lens that “our crop was pretty minimal compared to what it would be in a non-drought year. This is one of the worst droughts we’ve seen.”

The harvest is expected to produce 117 million bushels compared to approximately 111 million bushels during the 2015 drought.

“Our next challenge is seeding for next year’s crop,” she added. “If we don’t get any moisture, the seed won’t come up.”

Lewison says that Ecology’s point about the lack of irrigated wheatland is “a somewhat flimsy argument against declaring a drought declaration,” while Hennings says the state agency’s definition is narrowly tailored to a certain type of drought.

“They were looking at the running water supply instead of our rainfall,” Hennings said. “It’s important that they have to consider not only snowpack but that in Eastern Washington we rely heavily on rainfall. Sometimes, I think Eastern Washington feels like it got lost in the shuffle.”

While having U.S. Drought Monitor declare an emergency is of greater benefit for farmers by giving them access to federal funds or enabling them to file insurance claims, Hennings said that having Ecology declare a drought “helps with justifying your case.”

While state officials and lawmakers contemplate how to better prepare financially for a drought, Lewison noted “that’s why we have a rainy day fund,” which has been dipped into to pay for wildfire suppression in recent years.

“It’s set up specifically to deal with emergencies,” Lewison said. “If we’ve depleted that and we’re not replenishing it, then we have another larger issue to deal with.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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