The Washington Department of Ecology warned May 27 a drought may develop, but if conditions worsen the state has no money set aside for relief projects.

Washington lawmakers didn’t appropriate funds for a drought emergency in the new two-year $59 billion operating budget Gov. Jay Inslee signed in May.

Moses Lake Sen. Judy Warnick, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate agriculture committee, said May 28 the state is unprepared to respond to hardships caused by water shortages.

“It caught us flat-footed because our mountain snow was so good,” she said. “It appeared that we were going to be OK, and all of a sudden we’re not.”

The driest March-April since 1926 has put 54% of Washington in a drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported May 27.

Portions of Klickitat, Yakima, Benton, Walla Walla and Columbia counties are in “extreme drought,” the second-worst category behind “exceptional drought.”

An above-normal snowpack continues to supply irrigation districts, including in snowmelt-dependent Yakima County, the state’s top agricultural county. The dry spring, however, has lowered rain-reliant rivers.

River flows from Spokane to the Olympic Peninsula are less than half of normal, according to the Northwest River Forecast Council.

Ecology issued a drought advisory for east of the Cascades, as well as Southwest Washington and the coast. The advisory serves as an alert and doesn’t activate any government action.

If the state declares a drought emergency, Ecology will be able to authorize water-right holders to use emergency wells, but that won’t help dryland farmers.

“We expect the impacts to fall mostly on dryland areas,” Ecology drought coordinator Jeff Marti said.

Conditions were far worse in 2015. Washington declared a statewide drought that year on May 15. At the time, Ecology had little money on hand for relief, but lawmakers were still in session to appropriate emergency funds.

By late summer, Ecology was able to distribute $6.7 million for 15 public drought-relief projects. Several irrigation districts received grants.

Ecology called the drought a “learning experience.” The agency wrote a drought contingency plan in 2018. The plan recommended “more certainty regarding the availability of drought funding” for a more timely response.

The Legislature has adjourned for this year. No budget proposal, from the governor’s office or Democratic or Republican lawmakers, included money for emergency drought relief.

“We didn’t think it was going to happen,” Warnick said. “It caught us off-guard.”

In passing cap-and-trade and low-carbon fuels bills, the Legislature cited droughts as a reason for passing the climate-change measures.

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