- Associated Press - Friday, May 15, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The governor declared a statewide drought emergency on Friday, clearing the way for Washington state officials to ramp up aid to deal with hardships from water shortages.

Gov. Jay Inslee said parts of the state have been severely impacted by snowpack levels that have reached just 16 percent of normal.

“This drought has deepened dramatically over the past few weeks,” Inslee said, noting the snowpack was at an unprecedented low.

State agriculture officials estimated a loss of $1.2 billion in crops this year because of dry conditions. And state wildfire managers expected blazes earlier than normal in the season and at higher elevations.

“The rain the past few days is bringing some temporary relief, however with no snow in the mountains to sustain us through the dry summer months, we have some really tough months ahead of us,” said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology.

Some water managers in the Puget Sound region, including Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, aren’t anticipating water shortages.

“The large public utilities have planned well,” Bellon said. “Our projections show that most households in Washington will have an adequate water supply. Our focus in this snowpack drought is on farms, fish and smaller community water systems.”

State officials already have taken drought-relief measures in many areas to help protect municipal water supplies along with water needed for crop irrigation and fish populations.

Some districts have had to shut off water to farmers based on seniority of water rights. Major irrigators can volunteer to divert their water rights, with a cost-sharing option from the state - something Bellon said is already being done in the Dungeness region on the Olympic Peninsula.

Irrigation districts in the Yakima basin - one of the state’s main agricultural regions - are turning off water for weeks to extend supplies, Inslee said.

Water managers in the basin have tapped reservoirs two months earlier than usual.

Inslee said the state is seeing record low water levels in rivers, and water is being diverted from creeks to aid steelhead, Chinook and bull trout. In some cases fish are being moved to cooler waters upstream.

Before Friday’s statewide declaration, the governor first declared drought emergencies in March for three regions of the state and later expanded the areas to include nearly half of Washington.

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