Gov. Inslee expands Washington’s drought emergency declaration

OLYMPIA — Citing projections that say this summer will have the least snowmelt in 64 years, Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday expanded the state’s month-old drought emergency declaration to cover 44 percent of the state.

Inslee’s announcement more than doubles the number of Washington watershed areas officially considered to be suffering from drought.

In March, the governor identified 11 watersheds as drought-afflicted — six west of the Cascades and five on the east side. Thirteen more river basins were added Friday to the drought list.

“We’ve never experienced a drought like this before,” state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s not for lack of rain, but lack of snow.”

The statewide snowpack is only 24 percent of normal, Bellon said. That’s lower than it was during the past statewide drought declaration in 2005, and the long-range forecast calls for drier and warmer weather than usual in the next few months.

“Conditions are expected to get worse,” Bellon said.

The drought declaration means state officials can begin taking drought-relief measures to help protect municipal water supplies, crop irrigation and fish populations, all of which could suffer as the state gets drier.

The reservoir-fed water systems for Seattle, Tacoma and Everett are all at normal levels, Bellon said, but towns with well- and surface-water-dependent systems could be at risk.

“We are watching closely the smaller, rural water suppliers,” she said.

Officials have asked the Legislature to fund a series of drought-relief measures, which can include deepening water-supply wells, forestland maintenance and thinning to reduce wildfire risks, redirecting irrigation from hayfields to higher-value crops such as fruit trees, and deepening river channels for fish.

“Planning and taking action now is critical,” Bellon said, “so we can provide drought relief when and where it’s needed for our most vital needs.”

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