Northeast Washington, once a bright spot in assessing the state’s drought picture, was declared Wednesday a federal disaster area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The five counties — Okanogan, Ferry, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens — cover 13,000 square miles between Idaho and the Cascade Range. Eight counties in south-central and southeast Washington were previously designated drought disaster areas on June 24.
“We’re doing late-August work in the middle of July,” Stevens County rancher Ted Wishon said. “It’s hard to maintain your program when you’re lacking in water.”
Some 41 percent of the state has now been declared primary federal disasters areas. Producers in counties that border disaster areas also are eligible to apply for federal drought relief, including low-interest loans.
Northeast Washington’s water supply outlook last spring was favorable compared to the rest of the state. The Upper Columbia snowpack, though below average, was much higher than elsewhere in Washington. Watersheds in the region were generally expected by state and federal officials to have more than 75 percent of normal summer water supplies.
The area was not included in the state’s first drought declaration in mid-March, and most of the region was also not included in a second declaration a month later.
The region, however, went through heat waves and received little spring rain. The U.S. Drought Monitor classified all or portions of the five counties as being in a severe drought beginning May 19, just after Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency.
“The weather pretty much just changed it,” said Okanogan County Farm Bureau President Jon Wyss. “There’s a reason farmers don’t go to Las Vegas. Every morning they wake up and roll the dice.”
Okanogan County ranks in the top 10 among the state’s agricultural producing counties, with apples, cherries and pears the highest-value crops, according to the USDA.
Cherry growers are enjoying rainless days as they harvest, but livestock owners are having to store hay even as grazing lands dry up, Wyss said.
“The drought is impacting every farmer differently,” he said. “Fruit producers seem to be doing very well.”
The largest wildfire ever in Washington, the Carlton Complex, burned through Okanogan County last year. Some land has been reseeded, but grazing is restricted, Wyss said. “Everybody is trying to make due,” he said.
Counties that have been classified as being in a severe drought for eight straight weeks qualify for a disaster declaration. All or at least a portion of all 39 Washington counties have been in a severe drought since July 7.
Four Western Washington counties — Clallam, Jefferson, Grays Harbor and Mason — have been in a severe drought since June 23.
The previous drought declaration applied to Adams, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Grant, Klickitat, Walla Walla and Yakima counties.
Also Wednesday, the USDA declared drought disasters in five Idaho counties, 14 Montana counties and one Utah county.