Growers across the state lost $700 million as a result of Washington’s 2015 drought — far more than an early $85 million estimate, a state report estimates.
But officials also say the revised valuation may be too low when it comes to the complete economic impact of the drought — total losses could be as high as $1.2 billion.
“There are all these ripple effects from the drought that our analysis can’t catch, like dollars spent in stores or land not purchased, trucks not bought or equipment not maintained,” said Kelly McLain, lead author of the report and a state Department of Agriculture scientist. “In a state that produces 300 commodities, it’s hard to determine all the drought effects.”
McLain and others in agriculture are worried that a recent winter season with adequate, if not above average, snowpack levels could erase the memory of those millions of dollars lost. And, that would be a mistake, they say.
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Rapid snowmelt, high temperatures and one of the driest years on record hit growers, especially those with junior water rights, especially hard in 2015 as they scrambled to recover profits from lower yields and lower-quality fruit. Growers, water management officials and legislators need to keep the tough lessons of drought years front of mind even when water is more bountiful, experts say.
The planning that happens in years with healthy water levels helps to prevent losses similar to those growers experienced in 2015, said Washington Tree Fruit Association president Jon DeVaney.
“Water management infrastructure is one of those issues that when (a drought) is happening you realize it’s hugely important, but then it’s easy to forget about it and move on to other problems,” DeVaney said.
The analysis, released in February — more than a year after the drought — comes at a perfect time to serve as motivation for increased investment in irrigation, such as through the Yakima River Basin Water Enhancement Project, which aims to improve river flows, habitat and fish passages in addition to increasing water storage.
“This shows that drought has a significant cost to the local, regional and national economies and is exactly why we need to make some investment in the water management infrastructure to ensure we can provide a reliable supply for all uses so that our economy will do well,” DeVaney said.
Efforts to ensure a reliable water supply during drought conditions are already underway. For example, the Department of Agriculture has already started planning its future drought response based on findings from the study, McLain said. That plan includes mobilizing emergency drought permitting, which allows irrigators who get surface water to have access to groundwater, and also includes declaring the drought earlier.
But new plans can only be made as long as the department continues to track crop and related losses each year there is a drought.
“It gives us some perspective about how bad the droughts are and enables us to form contingency plans because we’re able to determine what resources we need,” McLain said. “It’s only as relevant as the last data point collected.”
The 2015 study allows the agency to devise drought plans, but continued study in successive drought years is needed to determine effectiveness.
In the future, McLain wants to spend more time verifying crop prices with growers, such as the Washington Tree Fruit Association and the Washington Wine Growers, to ensure loss estimates are as accurate as possible.
“It’s hard with 300 commodity groups in the state, but I think some of that verification work could be done and be valuable to the process,” she said.
No matter the changes made, it’s impossible to fully quantify the impact droughts have on communities.
For instance, because of the 2015 drought, some trees still aren’t producing the same amount of fruit they were in previous years — the study simply can’t measure those and other long-term effects.
“It will always be hard to track what the actual losses are from something like a drought because you try to take into account choices people make in response to it,” DeVaney said. “In the end, getting the exact number is less important than just showing there is a large cost in drought, no matter what that cost is.”