Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency Wednesday, though there appears to be little that can be done for the hardest-hit part of the state other than pray for rain.
A dry spell in its fifth month has pushed 70% of the state into some level of drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday. Adams County and portions of surrounding counties in southeast Washington are in an "exceptional drought," the worst category.
Never before, in weekly updates dating back to 2000, has the Drought Monitor classified any part of Washington in an "exceptional drought."
"There's no doubt about it. It's as dry as it gets," said Aaron Esser, Washington State University Extension director for Adams County.
The county's ranchers and dryland farmers are seeing pastures and crops shrivel, he said. The wheat harvest will be poor and might even be poorer next year, he said.
Farmers usually plant between late August and late September and will need rare summer rains to moisten the ground and allow the 2022 crop to establish itself, Esser said.
"That's like a once in every 10-year event. That's what we're looking for and praying for," Esser said.
The drought declaration excludes Seattle, Tacoma and Everett. Those cities are well supplied with snow-fed reservoirs. Likewise, some streams and rivers supplied by melting snow are holding up across the state.
Elsewhere, the Department of Ecology has curtailed 392 agricultural water-right holders in Eastern Washington. In Western Washington, 93 water-right holders were curtailed in the Chehalis Basin.
The drought declaration will allow Ecology to take applications to drill emergency wells and transfer water rights.
Ecology drought coordinator Jeff Marti said Thursday he has not heard of any preliminary inquires about transferring water rights.
In past droughts, most emergency wells were in the Yakima Valley. The Bureau of Reclamation projects that irrigators there will have full water supplies from reservoirs.
The state didn't budget for a drought. Ecology has only $325,000 on hand for drought-relief projects. Ecology will try to find more money somewhere, officials said.
Adams County and the portions of other counties in an exceptional drought make up 7% of the state. About 33% of Eastern Washington is in an "extreme drought," one step better.
Long-term precipitation deficits are the main reason, assistant state climatologist Karin Bumbaco said.
Conditions are likely to get worse as the summer wears on and streams drop, she said.
"I think it's safe to say that the whole area of Eastern Washington that's in extreme drought is close to being in exceptional drought," Bumbaco said.
From March through June, Washington received a little more than half its usual amount of precipitation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The only March-June period that was drier in 127 years of record-keeping was 1924. For southeast Washington, including Adams County, it was the driest March-June on record, according to NOAA.
Even in a normal year, the region doesn't receive much rain in the spring and early summer. This year, it received roughly one-quarter the average amount.
"Unfortunately, this year some of the parts of the state that are most stressed by a lack of water got hit the hardest," Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said in an interview Thursday.
Joining Inslee at a press conference Wednesday, Bond called the record-shattering heat wave in late June "just an event." More worrisome, he said, is the trend toward hotter and drier summers.
"Climate change is not an abstract, future concept. It is here and now," he said.
Inslee said climate change was "ravaging our state."
"This is the summer of climate change," he said.