Legislators, officials say long-term plans needed for drought

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YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC – DONALD W. MEYERS – ELLENSBURG — A state environmental official said Washington needs to be less reactive and take a long-term approach to how it handles drought.

“I liken trying to find water in a drought to living in a hurricane state and trying to find a generator two days after the hurricane,” Jeff Marti, water resources planner for the state Department of Ecology, told a joint legislative committee at Central Washington University on Wednesday. “It is going to be scarce and the cost will go up. The amount we wanted to invest (in drought response) won’t go as far.”

With drought emergencies being declared in 27 watersheds throughout the state, including the Upper and Lower Yakima and Naches watersheds, members of the Legislature’s Water Supply During Drought Joint Committee said pushing a drought-response bill and allocating more funding for drought relief were the main recommendations the committee would make to lawmakers for the upcoming session.

Sen. Judy Warnick, the committee’s chairwoman, said the group will work with the departments of Ecology, Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife to come up with additional recommendations to improve drought response.

“It was sobering,” Warnick, a Moses Lake Republican, said of the drought prognosis presented during the meeting. “The number of potential impacts is sobering.”

Marti, with Ecology, said Yakima Basin junior water-rights holders are currently prorated at 72 percent of their allotments, a number he hopes holds. And about 405 water users statewide who have “junior-junior” water rights have already had their water curtailed, Marti said.

There are anecdotal reports of reduced hay production because of a water shortage, Marti said. The full effect won’t be known until the end of the harvest season, Marti said. Junior water users are concerned about getting extra cuttings for hay or having to decide which crops they’ll have to sacrifice due to water shortage.

When a drought emergency is declared, the state can offer funding to irrigators in the affected area to purchase additional water, officials said.

The amount varies, with $16 million allocated in 2015. This year, $2 million was set aside, with $1.2 million already requested, Marti said.

A bill in this year’s Legislature would have allowed people in drought-affected areas to petition Ecology for a drought emergency declaration, as well as start a pilot program to examine the costs of purchasing long-term water leases that could be used to address drought conditions in the state.

House Bill 1622 passed the House 80-16 but failed to get a Senate vote before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Warnick, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, and Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said getting that legislation passed will be a priority.

“People on this committee are committed to a long-term solution,” Chandler, a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “It is going to take some effort to get there.”

Warnick anticipates the committee will meet more often as the drought continues.

Posted by: DONALD W. MEYERS Yakima Herald-Republic, June 26, 2019

Picture: Donald W. Meyers / Yakima Herald Republic