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Western Drought Response Kicks Into Higher Gear

Washington officials say the state is experiencing a 'snowpack drought.'
NOAA
Washington officials say the state is experiencing a 'snowpack drought.'

California Governor Jerry Brown ordered statewide mandatory water saving measures Wednesday. Water managers are preparing for drought in Oregon and Washington state as well.

Washington and Oregon's governors have already declared drought emergencies in select counties where farmers depend on runoff for irrigation. In Olympia, a drought and water supply committee that has been dormant for years has been reconvened.

State drought coordinator Jeff Marti briefed the group Wednesday.

"We're viewing this as a snowpack drought,” he said. “So those areas that are not dependent on snowpack, we don't necessarily anticipate to see problems for those water users this year."

That includes big city water systems such as Seattle and Tacoma. Marti said his agency is offering to lease water from farmers in the Yakima River Basin if they'll let their fields go fallow this season. The purchased water would help sustain fisheries and could allow other farmers to pump from emergency wells.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation said water reservoirs in Washington's Yakima basin, central Oregon and Idaho's upper Snake River are currently full or nearly full. Dam operators have let the reservoirs fill earlier than usual with rainfall and early snowmelt.

Even so, junior water-rights holders in the Yakima River basin have already been put on notice that irrigation water may be curtailed later in the season because of near record low snowpack.

Washington's Department of Ecology has requested $9 million from the state legislature to pay for various drought relief activities in 2015.

Oregon's Water Resources Department is taking applications for temporary emergency permits to drill new wells to replace dried up or cut off surface water intakes in southeastern Oregon.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.