As long as the state controls the water, it is responsible for drought help

Even with $2.6 billion in unanticipated revenue, Washington may force some communities to truck water at their own expense rather than address drought relief needs.

Communities in both Eastern and Western Washington may face shortages of the surface and groundwater resources that provide drinking and household water to their residents. Many farmers and ranchers already are feeling the effects of the drought and will continue to see its aftermath well beyond when the autumnal rains begin to arrive.

Washington state government controls many aspects of water supply, and Washington State Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson even denied farmers the ability to transfer water rights earlier this year when the drought was beginning. Given the serious circumstances, legislators should return to Olympia to address the inadequate drought relief funding available through the Department of Ecology.

Back in 2005, the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought was established to provide guidance and oversight to Ecology regarding drought response activities. However, the joint committee can only convene after a drought declaration has been declared.

For communities that rely on surface water from creeks and small rivers in Western Washington, trucked water may soon become a reality. Some public utility districts have funds set aside for such a shortage, while others may not. The $750,000 in drought relief grant funding currently available from the Department of Ecology likely will dwindle quickly should several communities find themselves coming up dry.

Our state currently enjoys $2.6 billion in unanticipated revenues, according to the June revenue forecast. Some of that unexpected revenue growth certainly could be allocated to the Ecology drought relief fund to keep the water on in homes throughout Washington.In addition to the residential water supply needs of Washingtonians, farmers and ranchers have been feeling the pinch of drought for a few months, with grain growers requesting a drought declaration in June. Many wheat growers already have begun to harvest their crops, and some are reporting yields of up to 50 percent below normal because of the dry conditions in Eastern Washington.

There are longer-term considerations for the agricultural community, including fall and winter feeding needs for livestock raisers in our state. Forage usually is available in dryland areas as well, but with the lack of rain in late spring, fall and winter pastures are barren in many areas, and ranchers will need to supplement their grazing programs with purchases of feed, which can be costly.

Drought preparedness in a state where nearly half of the landmass is classified as a desert region seems like a wise investment in any given year, regardless of snowpack. Beyond the need for drought preparedness, our state budgeted $750,000 on a now-shelved study to breach the Lower Snake River Dams. By way of contrast, the legislature budgeted the same amount for drought assistance. Washington state declared a drought emergency in 2021 but did not budget nearly enough resources to answer the needs of residents on either side of the Cascades.

Lawmakers should act to answer the needs of their constituencies. Members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Water Supply During Drought have a responsibility to identify and allocate resources to answer the needs of people affected by drought, whether they are residents whose homes no longer have running water or farms and ranches whose crops and livestock are thirsty.

As long as the state government controls the taps, it has an obligation to pay the price when its decisions impact the lives of families and farmers who need water. ■