WSDA estimates ‘15 drought damage topped $700 million

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The 2015 drought caused $703 million in economic damages to Washington farmers, according to an estimate by the state Department of Agriculture released Wednesday.

The report cited difficulties in pinpointing losses and stated the damage likely ranged between $633 million and $773 million, a 10 percent margin of error either way.

Even with the leeway, WSDA scientist Kelly McLain said the report likely understates the drought’s impact.

“I do believe the report is conservative in estimating the economic damage,” said McLain, who led the study along with WSDA hydrologist Jaclyn Hancock.

The Department of Ecology commissioned the study, the state’s first ever attempt to measure a drought’s economic impact on agriculture. In May of 2015, WSDA estimated drought losses in the coming summer could reach $1.2 billion if no emergency measures were taken.

“But much was done, by state and federal agencies, agriculture industry organizations, irrigation districts and farmers themselves,” WSDA Director Derek Sandison wrote in an introduction to the report.

Ironically, USDA reported late last year that Washington agriculture set a production record in 2015, with crops and livestock fetching $10.7 billion, topping by 5 percent the record set in 2014.

WSDA didn’t attempt to assess the overall agriculture economy, but focused on losses and expenses absorbed by farmers due to heat and water shortages. The report doesn’t measure the affects of higher commodity prices.

The department recommends in its report mapping out water rights that could be transferred in the next dry year to farmers vulnerable to drought.

“We need to be responsive and on top of it,” McLain said.

In compiling the report, WSDA surveyed and interviewed farmers, visited fields and consulted with several organizations. The report also draws on figures from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Among the findings:

• A majority of the damage, $501 million, was attributed to lower production for 15 crops that take up 77 percent of the state’s planted acreage.

The crops that suffered the most economic damages were wheat, $199.4 million; apples, $61 million; cherries, $38.8 million; feed corn, $36.4 million; and hay, $31.2 million.

• Farmers in the Roza Irrigation District in the Lower Yakima Valley suffered damages totaling $75.78 million.

The losses could have been worse. Farmers activated 45 emergency wells. The wells hadn’t been used in 10 years. Maintaining and operating the wells cost farmers an estimated $972,000.

The irrigation district spent $190,000 a day to lease water and add 14 days of irrigation. The cost of leasing the water is not reflected in the report.

• Dairy farmers reported buying more feed, leasing more grazing land and getting less milk. WSDA estimated their damages at $33.27 million.

WSDA received few responses to surveys sent to cattlemen and did not estimates damages suffered by beef producers. Poultry losses also were not assessed.

• Farmers in the Wapato Irrigation Project in Yakima County suffered damages totaling $32.96 million. Most of that, $20.6 million, was in lost apple production. The Bureau of Indian Affairs manages the district.

• Farmers in the Kittitas Reclamation District in the Kittitas Valley saw damages totaling $11.4 million, mostly in sharply reduced timothy hay cuttings. The Roza and Kittitas districts are made up of water-right holders who had their supplies severely curtailed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

• Skagit County farmers suffered economic damages of $27.2 million, according to an estimate supplied by Washington State University Extension. Farmers grow a wide variety of vegetables, berries and seed crops in the Western Washington county.

• The drought reduced the yield, size and quality of berries. Red raspberry growers suffered $13.9 million in economic damages, while blueberry growers suffered $7.76 million in losses, according to WSDA.

WSDA noted that more than 300 crops are grown in Washington and not all of them are accounted for in the study.