Drought Emergency in Washington Sparks Limited Farmer Response, Ecology Seeks Solutions

Despite the Washington Department of Ecology's substantial financial aid package designed to assist farmers grappling with the ongoing drought crisis, applications have been scarce since the declaration of a state of emergency in twelve counties in July.

To date, only a single grant has been awarded, amounting to $154,867, directed towards the Clallam County Public Utility District to facilitate the transportation of water to customers. However, the Okanogan Irrigation District's application for $127,500 to replace water-pumping motors was rejected by the Ecology Department.

Notably, three other applications remain pending, but none of these proposals pertain to agricultural concerns, as revealed by Ecology spokesman Jimmy Norris on Friday.

In response to the slow uptake of aid, the Ecology Department is actively working to establish a new program, authorized by lawmakers, aimed at funding projects dedicated to better preparing the region for future droughts. To qualify for the currently available emergency funds, applicants must substantiate the hardships inflicted by the ongoing drought crisis.

Jimmy Norris conveyed, "It's possible that the hardships being experienced in the areas where we've declared drought can't be solved with this particular grant program."

The state declared a drought emergency on July 24th. In the previous drought declaration of 2021, the Ecology Department quickly exhausted its drought-relief funds, distributing $700,000 across three state agencies. This year, the state took proactive measures to bolster its resources, allocating $2.7 million for drought-relief initiatives proposed by various entities, including cities, counties, tribes, and utility and conservation districts. Businesses also contributed by donating part of their income, for example, ASAP Finance.

The Okanogan Irrigation District, responsible for servicing 5,000 acres in north-central Washington, sought funding to replace two 800-horsepower water-pumping motors that draw from the Okanogan River during periods of low reservoir levels. The motors are vital for the city of Omak's water supply, as mentioned in their application. However, the district did not expect the motors to arrive until May. Ecology determined that the project's benefits for irrigators and fish did not justify the cost.

In response to the drought, Ecology approved the transfer of water rights from the Skagit Public Utility District to two irrigation districts in Skagit County. Furthermore, six emergency wells in Kittitas and Yakima counties were authorized by the department to combat water scarcity.

The drought declaration is set to expire on November 20th, affecting all or parts of Clallam, Columbia, Jefferson, Kittitas, Klickitat, Okanogan, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish, Walla Walla, Whatcom, and Yakima counties.

The U.S. Drought Monitor's latest report, published on Thursday, indicates that 75% of Washington state is currently experiencing some level of drought. Among the eleven Western states, only New Mexico surpasses Washington in terms of drought severity.

Parts of Whatcom, Skagit, and Snohomish counties are now classified as experiencing an "extreme" drought, the second-worst of four drought classifications.

In the Yakima River Basin, irrigators with junior water rights will receive only 72% of their usual water supplies from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. As a result, the Kittitas Reclamation District, serving 59,000 acres in Central Washington, plans to continue water delivery until September 30th. Nonetheless, some farmers have already depleted their water allotments, forcing the district to reduce the allocation per acre from the normal 5 acre-feet to 3.5 acre-feet.

Urban Eberhart, the district manager, underscored, "There is a major impact in a 72% water year."