Drought preparedness & response

At its most basic level, drought means there is a lack of water to meet needs. Every year, we carefully monitor snowpack, precipitation, and local temperatures to help anticipate potential drought conditions. We work with state and federal agencies to determine current and projected water supplies for the state. 

In Washington, the legal definition of drought is based on water availability. A drought emergency is declared when water supply conditions are expected to fall below 75 percent of average, and there is potential for undue hardships due to low water supply. In 2020, the Legislature also authorized Ecology to issue a “drought advisory” when drought conditions are developing, but an emergency declaration is not justified.

We use drought advisories and drought emergencies to help mitigate the impacts of drought, lessening the negative effects it can have on water supplies for people, farms, and fish.

Drought advisory 

A drought advisory may be issued ahead of a drought emergency when it appears that drought conditions may develop. Drought advisories seek to increase awareness and readiness of affected water users. A drought advisory may suggest steps, like reducing water use, to conserve water. This can help water users plan, prepare, and even reduce the impact of drought conditions.

Drought advisories are a process adopted in 2020. Drought advisories are informational only, and include no emergency authorizations or funding.

Drought emergency

A drought emergency may be declared statewide or for a more limited geographic area, like a watershed or county. A drought emergency means water supply is projected to be below 75 percent of average, and there is a risk of undue hardship to water users and uses. A drought emergency authorizes Ecology to process expedited requests for emergency water right permits. Emergency relief funding may also be available. Most recently, the state declared drought emergencies in 2015, 2019, 2021, and 2023. 

  • Drought 2023 Drought emergency declared in 12 counties on July 24, 2023

Longer-term drought resiliency 

Even without the warming of earth’s atmosphere, drought conditions can be expected to recur every few years. But temperatures are rising and summers are getting drier. Snowpack, a major source of Washington’s water supply, is declining. Low snowpack years will become more frequent in the future.  

The most effective way to mitigate drought impacts is to plan for the inevitable recurrence of drought conditions. The state legislature recently empowered the Department of Ecology to better support communities and water users in undertaking longer-term, non-emergency projects to build resiliency. More information on how we plan to do this will be made available in the coming year.

Our Drought Contingency Plan describes our drought response efforts. Once a drought is declared, we are the lead agency for drought response and follow the comprehensive Drought Contingency Plan. Drought response efforts include:

  • Aiding state agriculture,
  • Protecting public water supplies,
  • Safeguarding fish and boosting streamflows.

Drought Planning and Preparedness Grants

We will make $1.8 million available statewide via competitive grants. These grants will be issued within the next year and will be used to incentivize, facilitate, and increase local drought preparedness. These plans will identify the specific actions and associated costs and communities intend to take to increase water supply security as our climate changes. 

In accordance with HEAL Act requirements for new grant programs, the Water Resources Program has begun the Environmental Justice Assessment for this new grant program.

While designed to benefit all members of a given local community, this water security grant program will prioritize the water security for Tribes, overburdened communities, and vulnerable populations.

Visit the Drought Planning and Preparedness Grants webpage for more information.