Gregoire wants $4.1 million for drought relief


OLYMPIA -- Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday that she has asked the Legislature to set aside $4.1 million for drought-relief projects that may be needed because of below-average mountain snowpack this winter.

Much of Washington relies on mountain snowpack to feed rivers and streams that provide freshwater supplies for cities and towns, irrigation for farms and fish habitat. Low snowpack is raising concern that these supplies may be low this summer.

Gregoire said she talked to Democratic leaders in the House and 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, lease water from senior water right holders and other emergency actions that may be necessary.

Gregoire said both Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, agreed to the transfers. A spokesman for Brown said while it wasn't included in the budget the Senate passed 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 a 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 as severe, officials said.

Currently, 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.

Alhough the numbers haven't dropped to the levels of 2005, Gregoire said the numbers still are troubling.

Seventy percent to 80 percent of Washington's surface water supplies come from mountain snowmelt in the summer.

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 in total the drought had a nearly $1 billion impact on the state, he said.

"Any kind of investments we can make to avoid those kinds of impacts is very, very prudent," Newhouse said.

"The low snowpack means a lot of our winter precipitation in higher elevations fell as rain and won't be available as snowmelt when farms, fish and communities need it this summer," said Ted Sturdevant, director of the Department of Ecology. "We're hoping we won't need this money, but we will be ready if we do. Our goal is to protect farms, drinking water supplies, fisheries and streams."

Gregoire said because of El Nio, the state is likely to see a dry spring and a hot summer, which increases the concern about water shortages.

El Nio 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.

Most of Washington's wheat farms are dryland, but farmers are hoping for some rainfall before harvest this summer, said Tom Mick, CEO of Washington Grain Alliance.

"We're worried about the summer because the prediction is it'll be hot and dry, so we'll need timely rains in May and June to help our crop," Mick said.

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