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Senate eager to add more money for drought prep

Wheat harvesting in rural central Washington near Moxee Credit: Henry Alva/Flickr

The Washington Senate Ways & Means Committee unanimously recommended Tuesday that $18 million be allocated to fight Washington’s drought for the remainder of fiscal 2013-2015 and for the state’s upcoming budget biennium 2015-2017.

The new budget biennium begins this July 1. The earliest that the Senate can vote on this appropriation is Wednesday; the bill would go next to the House for a vote, and then to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

“It’s critical that we get this passed quickly,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside and the bill’s author.

The money will go to irrigation districts and public utilities for water-related repairs and improvements, digging wells, and pumping water from one location to another. And it will be used to lease water from senior water-rights holders to send to those who may need it the most.

On May 15, Inslee declared all of Washington to be in a drought, kicking in state-backed remedial measures on a scale never seen before.

People in the urban Puget Sound area are not feeling the direct effects. But rural Washingtonians — especially farmers — have been hit hard.

The drought is due to snowpacks running roughly 16 percent of what they have been normally. Melting snow feeds the steams, rivers and irrigation canals to make Washington’s farm economy possible. The low snowpacks have been linked by some to global warming.

A drought officially occurs when a river basin’s water supply dips below 75 percent of normal with hardships for people, farmers and fish expected. The Washington Department of Ecology has a web site on the drought. This year’s drought is expected to destroy about $1.2 billion worth of crops. In 2013, Washington’s farmers grew $10.1 billion worth of crops.

City residents in the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett areas won’t feel many effects from the drought because their water utilities have collected rain in their reservoirs in anticipation of low snowpacks — and have managed that juggling act well, state officials say.

But this year’s drought is sparking fears of extensive wildfires on the scale of those that devastated north-central Washington last year.

The drought also will likely affect steelhead and Chinook salmon when they migrate upstream to spawn. The small streams off the main rivers — where many fish spawn — are expected to dry out first, blocking fish passage. State officials expect to have to dig channels to allow fish to migrate, or to catch the fish and truck them upstream to spawn.

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