Thursday, December 3, 2015

State debates extending drought declaration

By Dan Partridge, communications manager, Water Resources Program 

If you look out your window in Western Washington, see the rain pouring in the street or the flooding in your neighborhood, it’s a no brainer: our historic drought must be over.

But it is a different picture east of the Cascades, which remains in extreme or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Map shows most river basins in the state below 75 percent of average snowpack.
A water supply of 75 percent or below is one threshold that must be met before an area 
can be considered for a drought declaration.

The Drought Monitor uses different criteria for determining the severity of a drought – such as soil moisture – than we do at Ecology because our criteria is set in law. The monitor, however, is one of several tools state agencies use in determining where and when to declare a drought emergency and when to lift that declaration.

A drought emergency declaration is important because the law requires that we issue one before we can commit any state funds to drought relief projects.  This year Ecology has spent or committed almost $5.6 million of $16 million allocated for drought relief projects by the Legislature for use over two years. Those projects include repair and replacement of failing wells in communities across the state and improving water delivery systems for irrigation districts.

This week Ecology’s Water Supply Availability Committee (WSAC) met to debate the future of the statewide drought declaration, which expires Dec. 31. WSAC is composed of state and federal agencies that monitor state water supplies. Committee members shared information on snowpack accumulations and stream flows, temperature and precipitation forecasts for the winter.

Current water supplies and anticipated hardships must be considered 
Determining if the drought declaration should be extended, at least in certain areas of the state, is more complicated than it might seem.
State law allows Ecology to declare a drought emergency if a geographical area is experiencing or is projected to experience a water supply that is below 75 percent of normal and water users in that area will likely incur hardships from a water shortage.

Snowpack that accumulates over the winter and then melts slowly over the spring and summer provides the run-off that is the primary water supply for most of our rivers and streams.  In this year’s “snowpack” drought, snowpack accumulations were way below normal, and higher than normal temperatures pretty much melted what snowpack we had before the first of June.

As we approach the holidays, an El Nino weather pattern is expected to bring warmer than normal temperatures and below normal snowpack over the winter. Our average statewide snowpack is 56 percent of normal, compared to 49 percent of normal at this time last year. Conditions and forecasts similar to those at this time last year produced our statewide drought.

Decision important to agriculture and the state economy 
Making the right decision on extending our drought declaration is particularly important to the agricultural industry, which contributes $10 billion annually to the state economy. This year irrigation districts cut back water allotments to farmers in the Yakima basin, our most productive agricultural region, and water shortages statewide resulted in millions of dollars in crop losses.  Ecology is preparing to help farmers avoid another year of extensive crop losses and if, when and where the drought declaration is extended will make a difference in providing drought relief.

The decision on extending our drought declaration will be decided by Gov. Inslee. He will be advised next week by his Cabinet-level Executive Water Emergency Committee working from this week’s WSAC reports.   

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