Washington drought will cost ag $1.2B in lost income

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon talks about her agency's drought response as Gov. Jay Inslee stands behind her during a press conference May 15 in Olympia. Bellon says getting water to Yakima Basin farmers is a high priority.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s first statewide drought in a decade will cost producers $1.2 billion in lost income, the state Department of Agriculture estimates.

Gov. Jay Inslee referred to the projection Friday at a news conference at which he announced he was declaring a statewide drought.

“Difficult decisions are being made today about which crops get priority in our vital agricultural regions,” he said.

The statewide declaration had been expected for several weeks. Inslee declared an emergency in about one-fifth of the state on March 13 and expanded it to almost half the state on April 17.

Since then, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has revised downward its water supply forecast for the growing season in the Yakima Basin. While farmers with senior rights will receive full supplies, the bureau estimates junior-right holders will receive 47 percent. Meanwhile, federal agencies are forecasting record-low flows in rivers across the state.

“The drought has deepened dramatically over the past few weeks,” Inslee said.

The governor warned that conditions for farms, fish and municipal systems that rely on surface water or shallow groundwater wells could suffer more problems over the summer.

“We’re facing hardships now, and we may face even tougher, more challenging months ahead,” he said.

A $1.2 billion loss in farm revenue would be about 12 percent of the $10.16 million value of crops and livestock produced in Washington state in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Yakima Basin growers in the Roza Irrigation District and Kittitas Reclamation District will be particularly hard hit, according to an assessment by WSDA.

Losses in those two districts on crops such as cherries, apples, hops, grapes and hay are estimated to reach $243 million, or about half of what could be expected in a normal year, WSDA Deputy Director Kirk Robinson said.

For the rest of the state, WSDA estimates losses at $972 million, a 10 percent reduction. Much of that loss will come in the Wenatchee area, where farmers rely on surface water.

WSDA described its estimate as conservative. Robinson said a hot summer could make losses greater.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center projects Washington’s summer will be warmer than average, while the chances of above or below normal precipitation are equal.

WSDA did not attempt to assess indirect economic losses due to a shorter packing season and reduced demand for labor and farm chemicals and equipment. The assessment also didn’t estimate losses if crops are planted in the fall under dry conditions.

Robinson advised producers to document their losses. Producers could become eligible for federal relief programs if the drought persists.

In 2005, WSDA forecast producers would suffer a 5 to 8 percent reduction in income, with losses of up to $299 million. That year, however, conditions improved as the growing season went on. The value of Washington agricultural production actually increased over 2004 by about $500 million, according to a report issued the following year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State officials hold out little hope for a turnaround this year. Because of a lack of melting snow, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began drawing down Yakima Basin reservoirs in mid-April, 10 weeks earlier than usual.

“One of our highest priorities has been finding ways to get water to farmers in the Yakima Basin. It’s our richest agricultural region in the state and our highest-risk area for this drought,” Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said.

Friday was the first time Inslee has called a news conference to announce a drought declaration, underscoring its increasing severity.

The drought will diminish stream flows for fish throughout the state, but residents in the most populous areas may hardly notice.

Utilities that supply Seattle, Tacoma and Everett with domestic water supplies have expressed concern that publicity about the drought will cause customers to conserve, decreasing their revenues.

DOE has requested $9.6 million from lawmakers for drought relief, including $4 million to lease water in the Yakima Basin for farmers. Legislators have not acted on the request. Inslee praised Bellon for marshaling resources to respond to the drought without waiting for the money. “It’s taking some creativity,” he said.

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