No drought about it, Washington needs water

Gov. Inslee declared a drought in parts of Washington including the Yakima River Basin on April 4. This will likely harm the states economy, agriculture and fisheries.


Nick Tucker, Senior News Reporter

Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency on April 4 in three different ecological zones including the Yakima River Basin. Due to lowering amounts of precipitation and hot, dry forecasts for coming months, water supplies are predicted to be 74 percent of normal amounts according to the Washington Department of Ecology.

Dr. Clay Arango, a CWU biological sciences and environmental studies professor said that this is likely to cause bad economic losses for the region, with farmers losing crops and the income that comes with them. Crops like grapes, hops and fruit orchards might not be as high-quality or might be lost altogether, meaning that farmers might not make ends meet for the year. If this is the case they would have to take out crop insurance claims. Millions of dollars of crop insurance claims were taken out in 2015 when the region saw one of its worst droughts in recent history. Total economic losses for that year exceed $1.2 billion according to current Washington Department of Ecology estimates, which are still being calculated as the region continues to see the long-term effects that a drought like this can have.

In addition to the impact on agriculture, fisheries will be severely impacted as a higher proportion of water is taken out of the local rivers to satisfy other needs. During the 2015 drought, fishing was suspended for several days by the Washington department of ecology due to the stress it would put on fish living in the warmer waters. This then went on to negatively impact the recreation and sporting businesses in the area. Ultimately the Yakima County estimates that 40 percent of the workforce in the Yakima River Basin is in water-dependent employment.

According to Arango, the people who are likely to be the most affected are junior water rights holders. Water rights holders are the result of policy in the western U.S. when the region was being settled by Euromericans from the eastern U.S. from the 1830s to 1850s.

“The idea is that a person had to bring the water to the land in order to improve the value, because everything is arid on this side of the mountains and if you can’t bring water, you can’t farm it, you can’t mine for gold,” Arango said. “So the idea of a water rights holder is that ‘first in time, first in right,’ if your water right is dated before somebody else’s, you get your full allotment of water first.”

In the early 1900s the federal government started to claim water rights which had not been taken, mostly precipitation falling in the winter when farming isn’t taking place. The water was then stored behind dams and delivered to those who need it, mostly those who didn’t already have standing water rights claims.

“Those are the junior water rights holders, and they’re the last ones in line,” Arango said. “Because of that, any year if it’s a dry year, they might not get their allotment.”

According to Arango, trends show that the Yakima River Basin will see increasingly frequent and severe droughts in the future as a result of climate change. This was reaffirmed by Gov. Inslee when he declared the drought emergency.

“Climate change means that we will continue to see lower water supplies all over the state and we need to plan now for the impact,” Inslee said.

Because of the trend towards environmental and economic crisis, a coalition of water rights holders, fisheries, conservation interests, the Yakama Nation and several other stakeholders have formed the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which is designed to stabilize the water supply using a multi-pronged approach. These approaches include storage and reservoir improvements, irrigation improvements and delivery system improvements. A controversial approach being considered is to upgrade pump systems to take more water from from several lakes, including Kachess Lake which sits in the middle of the Snoqualmie Pass. This would drop the water level of these lakes, and has been fought by the owners of lakeside property which would decrease in value if the water levels drop too far.

“It’s pretty unique, it’s brought a lot of stakeholders together who normally don’t get along very well but they all have this common interest of water,” Arango said. “It’s a situation where the benefits are going to a lot of different users so, at least for now, everyone has a certain amount of interest in making it succeed.”