The drought hitting Eastern Washington farmers is real, but spending millions of dollars to help might not be the right answer.
IT’S a shame to see the recent guest column on the drought by state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Mose Lake, whom I respect and enjoy working with, attempting to throw partisan blame.
Conversations have occurred about what to do about the drought and how to finance its impact. For now, the state Department of Ecology has enough money to address the drought until the Legislature passes a budget.
The $18 million in emergency funding sought by the Senate is also double the amount the Ecology Department requested. The state agency is now buying water with taxpayer’s money from farmers who have excess water to give to other farmers.
Public tax dollars will get used to pay some farmers not to grow things so other farmers can still make a profit.
The drought problem is real and Democrats and Republicans will work together to address needs.
Yet the first question is this: What happened to the $200 million the Legislature gave to the Department of Ecology in 2006 to improve the water situation in Eastern Washington?
What happened to the $200 million the Legislature gave to the Department of Ecology in 2006 to improve the water situation in Eastern Washington?”
Researching where that money went brought some disturbing information to light. None of that money created a real water reserve for drought times. That should have been the first priority. Instead, the money may have made the problem worse by boosting the amount of water used. Every new house and every new acre of irrigated apples increase the number of vulnerable farmers now asking for tax dollars. Everyone knew a drought was coming someday, yet nobody planned for it.
Since that $200 million in spending was approved, very little water has actually been put into fields or faucets. Most of the projects being developed are dependent on even more money to finish them, and no new water will be used until those projects get finished. So for that $200 million of our money, we have stacks of feasibility studies, test wells, promises and hope, but not much water.
In one spectacular example in the Odessa area of Sen. Warnick’s district, millions of dollars of tax dollars started a project that will require up to $800 million more with no accepted financing plan in place.
A proposal estimated to cost $5 billion — another grand plan hatched with the $200 million in the Yakima Basin — has already received an additional $130 million of state taxpayer dollars. But it will take hundreds of millions before any water is available.
While the Yakima plan nobly creates a coalition of interests, it lacks a funding plan other than to ask state taxpayers for more.
Other questions arise: The City of Yakima has said it will not impose conservation, yet each household there uses much more water than a Seattle household and only pays about one-third as much for water. Now some Eastern Washington cities are asking for tax dollars to ease the drought. Perhaps turning off the lawn sprinkler is a better plan.
There are many questions to be answered about where the money is going and how to create a sustainable, healthy agricultural economy that isn’t addicted to taxpayer dollars. Climate change is going to make droughts worse, but money alone can’t solve the problem. And the money we have must be spent wisely instead of as part of a political panic.
Irrigated agriculture only exists in dry Eastern Washington because of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal dams and other massively expensive dams and water projects built with taxpayer dollars. Today’s political climate in Congress means those days are over.
In Olympia, after years of savage budget cuts during the recession, we’re under court orders to boost funding for kids in schools and mental-health treatment.
Are these issues secondary to funding water? This is what less government feels like.
It’s no small decision to send another $18 million to chase the $200 million already spent, without a clear understanding of what happened to all those funds.
We do need to help farmers. Everyone agrees on that.
The disagreement lies in spending money wisely and conservatively, and in giving taxpayers answers about the money already spent before we commit to billions more in solutions that might not solve the problem.