Friday, August 7, 2020
Aug. 7, 2020

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In Our View: Bracing for New Normal

As Washington, and western U.S., tackle drought, action needed to prevent crisis

The Columbian
Published:

The old maxim that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it might prove to be painfully prophetic. As Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., implored recently: “These challenges will only intensify in the coming years. These drought conditions are the new normal; we need fresh approaches to better address these conditions and to prevent imminent economic losses.”

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee officially announced a statewide drought three weeks ago, opening the door for emergency funding to address the problems generated by such conditions. One of the interesting facets of the dryness is that the state is experiencing a snowpack drought, but not necessarily a rainfall drought. “This is the worst snowpack we’ve seen since we started collecting data in the 1930s,” said Scott Pattee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “The state is in a drought, even though we’ve had a normal water year.”

When Inslee declared the drought emergency in mid-May, mountain snowpack stood at 16 percent of normal, presaging a spring and summer thaw that will be inadequate for agriculture, wildlife habitat, and water management, while likely exacerbating the summer wildfire season. As the governor said in highlighting a portion of the impact: “In the Walla Walla region, water is being shifted from creek to creek to keep water flowing to steelhead, chinook, and bull trout. Fish are even being hauled further upstream to cooler, more abundant water.”

Which brings us back to the axiom that says nobody does anything about the weather. Reality, obviously, is that there is little humans can seek in the way of appeals to the snow gods for a bountiful harvest. But, as Cantwell notes, fresh approaches are necessary as Washingtonians consider the fact that this might, indeed, be the new normal.

“Key to the successful implementation of emergency drought response in Washington is the work we have done actively developing collaborative partnerships in many of the key watersheds in the state,” she said. “In the Yakima basin, partners have developed leading arrangements to share water among irrigation districts and provide water for stream flow while land lies fallow.”

All of that might sound like a bit of politician-speak, but the impact touches upon average citizens. Officials estimate that the drought will reduce agriculture production in the state by more than $1 billion this year, and a large irrigation district in the Yakima River basin shut off water for a few weeks in May in order to preserve the supply for later use. That impact also is widespread; Oregon has declared a drought emergency, and California’s lingering multiyear drought has led to mandatory rationing of water use.

Whether or not the conditions are forged by climate change that will have a decades-long effect, they are the current reality and call for legislative action. The Republican-led state Senate has approved an $18 million drought-relief bill, while the Democratic-led House of Representatives has delayed action on the bill as the sides hammer out a general operating budget.

But even if that money is expected to eventually be approved, it provides only short-term assistance. Droughts are likely to require a shifting of priorities in state budgets throughout the West, with annual allocations required to assist agriculture, wildlife, and the prevention of wildfires. The western United States is experiencing a new normal, and it will require more than simply talking about it.

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