Farm drought losses point to need of water plan

By: Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board

It’s hard to envision, after a rugged winter and amid a reluctant spring: At this time in 2015, we were wishing for a little less sunshine and a lot cooler temperatures. A mild winter and early spring led to a drought declaration in March and water restrictions in the months following. Junior water rights holders had to make excruciating decisions on which crops received water, especially tree fruit. Some private wells dried up in what went down as the hottest year on record in Central Washington, and the agricultural community was warned to expect unprecedented losses.

Now we have an idea of how extensive those losses were.

The state Department of Agriculture has released a report that estimates growers lost $700 million across the state, but that may be just a start; ripple effects may bring to total past $1 billion. Among other factors, some trees haven’t recovered from the drought and aren’t as productive as they were before 2015.

Lack of water doesn’t appear to be a problem this growing season, but it’s prudent to assume that more dry years will hit in the future. State officials are using the report to plan for future drought response. Among the steps are emergency drought permitting, which allows irrigators who get surface water to have access to groundwater, and a drought declaration earlier in the season.

Long-term, this data should buttress the case for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a compromise that aims to combine conservation and new storage to ensure a more reliable water supply for Central Washington. A number of once-competing entities — agriculture, irrigators, the Yakama Nation, fishing interests, environmental groups, and local, county and state governments — have agreed on the plan, with an estimated cost of $4 billion.

Largely missing still is federal involvement, and for that we can thank a bickering Congress. A promising measure sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., last year won Senate approval for $92 million for a Lake Kachess project. The bill would have authorized the first 10-year phase of a 30-year project, and the money would have come on top of $160 million that the state has promised. Alas, that proposal fell victim to disputes in a House-Senate conference committee.

Cantwell has worked across party lines with 4th District U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who as a farmer knows well the critical need for water in our agricultural Valley. The state’s report provides stark numbers that buttress the case for the plan, one that given the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy, warrants the support of the entire congressional delegation. The plan builds infrastructure that will last for decades; a $700 million loss, multiplied by drought years that are inevitable down the road, highlight how the integrated plan’s investment will pay off in the future.


* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.

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