LACEY, Wash. — The Washington Department of Ecology is reworking its drought response plan, shifting the focus from bringing farmers relief this summer to longer-term water projects proposed by cities, irrigation districts, tribes and other public agencies.
The agency has been scrambling for months to respond to a steadily worsening drought without a firm spending plan or budget authority from lawmakers. With newly appropriated money finally in hand, DOE Director Maia Bellon signed an order Friday setting out rules to obtain up to $500,000 for public projects to relieve water shortages causing hardship to fish, communities and farms.
The order represents a change from the plan outlined by DOE to lawmakers last spring, when the agency said it was focusing its drought relief efforts on minimizing crop losses in the Yakima Basin.
Back then, DOE proposed spending $4 million or more in the basin on agriculture, compared to $2 million for city water systems and $1.2 million for fish survival statewide. “Those delineations are pretty much out the window,” DOE spokesman Dan Partridge said Thursday.
DOE says spending in the Yakima Basin hasn’t materialized because of the scarcity of water rights to lease.
DOE has committed $1.1 million to draw water from about 40 emergency wells, mostly in the Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Basin. The state and farmers share costs.
The agency has said it anticipates spending about $700,000 on water leases between Roza and senior water right holders in the Sunnyside Irrigation District.
Transfers between the districts were completed even before DOE had received funding from the Legislature.
Roza’s general manager, Scott Revell, said Friday that state funding hasn’t been an obstacle — water isn’t available. The district has obtained about 15 percent of the water it leased during the last statewide drought in 2005, he said. “It’s not there.”
Lawmakers this month committed $16 million for drought relief over two years. DOE requested $9.6 million for this year, though it’s unknown how much actually will be spent and how much will carry over into 2016, Partridge said.
According to the order signed by Bellon, the state will consider a wide-range of projects to conserve water and develop new water supplies, though a project can’t create a new use or new water right.
Public entities that win funding will have to put up at least 50 percent of the cost of the project.
Eligible projects include deepening wells, installing pumps and meters, and repairing leaky canals.
The projects likely will drive drought response, though may bring limited immediate relief.
“For this year, we’re definitely late in the season,” DOE drought relief coordinator Jeff Marti said. “It’ll be challenging to have significant large-scale, infrastructure projects at this time.”
The department already has allocated up to $200,000 to compensate Olympic Peninsula irrigators for forgoing drawing from the Dungeness River after Aug. 15.