Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
Press Conference Announcing Drought Emergency Declaration
March 14, 2001

Drought emergency
I'm here today to tell you without a doubt, Washington is facing the most serious water shortages in at least a quarter-century. This could well be THE worst drought since record-keeping began in 1929. I am here today to formally declare a drought emergency and describe how the state, through this declaration, is moving quickly to ease the pain.

Precipitation is at or near record lows all across Washington: 50 to 60 percent of normal west of the Cascades and 40 to 50 percent of normal east of the mountains. Snowpack is running at 50 to 60 percent of normal. Record low flows are being set daily in our rivers.

What this means
For anyone who thinks a major drought cannot happen in the Evergreen State, this drought is real, and the effects are going to be real. We can clearly see where we stand today at Alder Lake, how the drought impacts us all. This is a hydroelectric site -- no water… no energy. No water… no swimming. No water… no fishing.

And there are other sites in the state that look a lot like this -- Baker Lake in Whatcom County and Riffe Lake in Cowlitz County -- 130 ft. below normal, for example. And those facilities are for drinking water.

Washington state has 16,000 public water supply systems, and the vast majority of them (12,000) serve just a few households or businesses. Each system, and each part of the state, is unique and may experience the drought differently. Nearby here, the Alder Lake Water System already had its well go dry. After trucking in water, they had to dig a deeper well, and the state Department of Health continues working with them to ensure their drinking water is safe.

This drought affects the entire state.

For now the biggest impact of the drought is on farmers who rely on 75 percent of the state's water.

Some irrigation districts in the Yakima Basin expect only 38 percent of the water they are normally entitled to, and it may dip to as low as 6 percent. More than a quarter of the value of the state's agriculture is produced in this basin alone.

We are experiencing unprecedented low flows in the Columbia River - 56 percent of normal and dropping.

Throughout the state, water for general domestic or business use may be in short supply during the summer months.

The City of Kent has 30 percent less water than it needs. Sammamish and Bremerton are also short on water.

Some of the best returns of adult salmon in years will be returning to dry rivers and streams.

Dry conditions during summer months may aggravate the potential for severe forest fires, as well as kill grass and shrubs deer and elk need for survival.

Already thousands of people have lost their jobs due to the energy situation. With a drought, food processors and orchardists may face financial ruin.

I cannot say this strongly enough. The agricultural industry has been struggling for some years. They now face soaring energy costs. We have to protect their need for water this fall when they need it most. If we lose fruit trees this year, they're gone forever. Replanted trees won't produce again for seven to 10 years.

What we do now may mean the very survival of agriculture in Eastern Washington.
What a drought declaration will do
Let me explain what this emergency declaration will do. It activates several tools the Department of Ecology will use, beginning today, to ease the effects of the drought:

Temporary transfer of water rights -- that means that those who have water rights can share with those who don't.

We also have a $5 million Drought Account to provide assistance to farms, fish and local communities. This money could be crucial to farmers who are willing to lease back what water they have to the state and others because it isn't enough for their crops.

A third tool -- authorizing emergency water permits -- will provide some help, but we can't rely on this. There are very few parts of the state with excess water.

For those who are concerned about long lines and slow response, the Department of Ecology is adding and shifting staff immediately to help handle the additional workload and make decisions within 15 days.
State government cannot erase all the effects of a drought. We need to manage this crisis together -- neighbors helping neighbors and farmers helping farmers by sharing water where we can.

Water legislation
The drought magnifies the need to pass the legislation I've proposed to the Legislature. These proposals would build a more efficient water management system.

Some aspects of my proposal would help us in managing the drought this year - so I urge quick action on this legislation.

Water conservation
As you know, we already are in an energy crunch. And people are responding.

In state government, we have cut electricity use by about 11 percent and natural gas use by nearly 15 percent. Major utilities are reporting that citizens are reducing electricity use by up to 10 percent in some areas.

We need to bring the same commitment to conserving water.

That includes state government. I am directing our state Department of General Administration to develop a water conservation plan, to be implemented over the coming months, for all state agencies and the Capitol campus.

Every single one of us can save water and still maintain our quality of life. The people of Seattle have demonstrated that conservation measures over the last decade are really paying off today. They use nearly the same amount of water today as they did back in 1978. It can be done.

Impacts of the drought may be uneven around the state. But we are all in this together. The agricultural industry feeds us all, provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, is a major player in our economy and uses 75 percent of the state's water. When we help the agricultural industry by conserving water, we help all of us. Our rivers serve everyone with irrigation water, recreational opportunities and fishing resources. Maintaining river levels benefits all of us. And everyone needs drinking water.

Working together, we can keep our farmers and industry in business, keep our salmon alive, and keep a pure water supply for our people.

Bottom line: Water is life. Don't waste it.

(Governor and Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons sign documents, then introduce Rick Deiker of the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District and Larry Blanchard with the City of Kent.)
Access Washington