Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday that she has asked the Legislature to set aside $4.1 million for drought-relief projects that might be needed to counter below-average mountain snowpack this winter.
Much of Washington relies on mountain snowpack to feed rivers and streams, providing freshwater supplies for cities and towns, irrigation for farms and healthy habitat for fish. Low snowpack this winter is raising concerns that these supplies might dwindle during the summer.
Gregoire said she talked to Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate on Friday and asked them to transfer money from a disaster response fund to the drought relief account, which was depleted during last year’s budget cuts. “We do not have the resources necessary should this drought continue out,” Gregoire said.
The money would be used to deepen wells and lease water from senior water right holders, as well as any other emergency action that might be necessary.
Gregoire said that both Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, agreed to the transfers. A spokesman for Brown said that while it wasn’t included in the budget that the Senate passed on Saturday, it is expected to be included in future versions.
The last time the state had to dip into the account was in 2005. About $8 million was spent to deal with the drought emergency declared by Gregoire in March of that year, when precipitation was at or near record lows across the state and mountain snowpack averages were just 26 percent of normal.
Conditions this year do not appear to be anywhere near as severe, officials said.
Most snowpack levels in the state range from 50 percent to 83 percent of normal average.
Only the Olympic Peninsula is seeing above average levels, at 101 percent.
Even though the numbers haven’t dropped to the levels since those in 2005, Gregoire said the numbers still were troubling.
Seventy percent to 80 percent of Washington’s surface water supplies come from mountain snowmelt in the summer, and a drought puts drinking water supplies, farmers, fisheries and streams at risk.
Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said farmers risk losing millions in crops during a drought. In the Yakima River basin area during the 2005 drought, agricultural production loss was almost $250 million, and that in total it was a nearly $1 billion hit to the state, he said.
“Any kind of investments we can make to avoid those kinds of impacts is very, very prudent,” Newhouse said.
Gregoire said that because of El Niño, the state is likely to see a dry spring and a hot summer.
El Niño is a periodic warming of the water in the tropical Pacific Ocean accompanied by changes in air pressure and winds that can influence weather worldwide.