U.S. Water News Online
ALDER, Wash. -- Standing before muddy tree stumps on the bottom of a dry lake bed, Washington Gov. Gary Locke has declared a statewide drought emergency.
The declaration gives the state new tools and money to help farms and fish survive what Locke predicted could be the driest year on record. Reservoirs, rivers, and snowpacks are about half of normal for this time of year.
``This is already the worst drought in our state since 1977, and it's only March,'' Locke said. ``We'll probably beat that record soon.''
There will be no limits on lawn-watering or car-washing -- at least not yet. Locke said voluntary conservation of energy seems to be working well now, and he hopes the same will happen with water.
``Water is life. Use it wisely. Don't waste it,'' Locke urged.
The dry conditions will strike a huge blow to Eastern Washington farmers who depend on irrigation. Some farmers in the Columbia River Valley have already been notified that they may have their water turned off or cut back.
Locke's response is to speed up the process of granting water transfers -- something allowed under the emergency drought declaration. That will make it easier for water rights to be transferred from one city to another or one farmer to another. Currently there's a 1,800-permit backlog of water transfer applications, but Locke said that emergency transfers will be processed within 15 days.
``We have to protect their need for water,'' Locke said of the farmers. ``If we lose the fruit trees this fall we lose them forever.''
Republican lawmakers from Eastern Washington applauded Locke's announcement but said he should also allow emergency wells and decreased river flow levels.
Under the drought declaration Locke has the power to let farmers drill or use emergency wells. But Locke and Department of Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons they will probably authorize only a few, if any, emergency wells. They say the wells could decrease the overall amount of water available for everyone.
Locke and Fitzsimmons could also decide, on a temporary basis, to let the rivers flow a little lower than their normal minimum. Locke said he and Fitzsimmons are still deciding on that issue.
``We're not just talking about numbers and flow levels and inches, we're talking about people,'' said Sen. Pat Hale, R-Kennewick, who urged Locke to us e all possible methods to help farmers get their water. ``People's lives and their livelihoods are at stake in Eastern Washington.''
Farmers have already been hit by desperately low commodities prices and soaring energy costs.
``What's more important, the people or the fish? That's the decision that has to be made,'' said Rick Dieker, manager of the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District. He stood behind Locke at Alder Lake and praised the governor's actions. He also said the governor should let farmers use emergency wells. Without them, he said, ``They're out of business.''
Locke made the announcement in the now-dry swimming area of Alder Lake, a hydropower source near Mount Rainier. The lake is not completely dry, but the area where Locke stood is usually under 12 feet of water.
The declaration opens a special state drought account that contains $5.1 million. The money will be used to buy water rights to keep rivers and streams from drying up, and to help cities and towns and farmers who irrigate.
Since the state largely depends on hydropower for energy, the drought worsens the state's energy shortage problems. The city of Tacoma is considering beefing up its conservation measures by implementing fines of $100 to $500 for people and businesses who ignore warnings to turn off unnecessary lights.
Tacoma Power, Seattle City Light and the Snohomish County Public Utility District announced a series of radio and TV ads to promote conservation.
The drought also strains fledgling salmon-recovery efforts. Locke noted that the best return of adult salmon in years will be returning to dried-up rivers and streams. Who should get that water, the fish or the farms?
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission offered a plea for the fish. Chairman Billy Frank Jr. urged the state to maintain the greatest possible stream flows for fish.
``When fish are unable to spawn because of low flows, there is a severe economic as well as cultural impact on generations to come ...,'' Frank said. ``Let's keep our priorities straight. Lost income this year is one thing. Impacts on the economy and culture of the Northwest for decades to come is another.''
``We're trying to balance those two,'' said Fish and Wildlife Department Director Jeff Koenings. Still, he admitted, ``There's no question that this low flow condition is bad for fish.''
Koenings also raised a possibility that, so far, most people haven't wanted to consider.
``What if it goes on for two, three or four years?'' Koenings asked. ``We've got to prepare ourselves mentally for the longer term.''
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