Water Matters: Cost-benefit

Twenty-five to 35 million dollars. What would you do with that amount of money?

If you were to spend it on a construction project for public benefit, what would you do?

If your project could undertake such lofty goals as ensuring a future for farming, enhancing salmon populations, preventing flooded streets and yards, replenishing drinking water supplies, AND opening a huge new public park — ALL in Sequim — would you?

Last year was officially the hottest on record, globally — for the third year in a row. Predictions are that average winter temperatures will get warmer in the Olympic Mountains over time, resulting in less ice and snow meltwater in the rivers around the peninsula in spring and summer. Migrating salmon — and in the Dungeness, farmers — rely on the annual cycle of high meltwater flows which used to continue through July.

Now, in fact, water managers check indicators such as snowpack to assess whether late summer flows are likely to meet the needs of agriculture and stressed salmon runs.

If not, the state sometimes pays farmers to forego their right to divert millions of gallons per day (several cubic feet per second, cfs) for irrigation, giving up their late summer crops to benefit salmon.

A new proposal called the Dungeness Off-Channel Reservoir would resolve this late-summer shortfall by avoiding the diversion of around 25 cfs — up to 50 percent of the typical flow at that time. A consortium* of fish, farming, water quality and water supply stakeholders has known for years that the solution is to store runoff in winter and spring for beneficial use in spring and summer.

Now, with the recognition that state land is available for a storage reservoir, the idea has traction.

There is one significant caveat: the estimated cost of construction.

Compared to most salmon recovery projects, the cost is high — except for other flow-restoration reservoirs.

Compared to irrigation storage reservoirs, the cost is more similar but on the high side.

Compared to most aquifer recharge projects, the cost is high, and compared to stormwater control or parks and recreation projects, the cost is extremely high.

However, this project can’t be so compared because it doesn’t do just one of these things, it does them all. In addition, spring-time aquifer recharge will help maintain groundwater levels and the twice-yearly fill-drain cycle provides both salmon and farmers a “Plan B” for drought.

Considerations …

Do these multiple benefits outweigh the high cost? It’s a very tricky analysis because it requires a dollar value for climate resiliency — having a reliable source of irrigation water even in drought years and ample streamflow for migrating salmon — as well as for recreation and groundwater benefits.

This reservoir is such a good idea we think every watershed group in the West will be looking to do the same thing — and when that happens our project may look like a bargain! The land has relatively low value because it’s zoned for timber and recently was logged (and it’s not a high-producing property anyway), the incoming and outgoing delivery infrastructure is already in place, gravity conveyance avoids the need for pumps and we have stakeholder commitment from often opposing sides as well as grassroots support.

What more could we want?

First, the land transfer from the state Department of Natural Resources. Our site is to be considered this year alongside a dozen other candidate sites for funding by the state Legislature. In recent years only a few have been approved. If our site is not funded, the consortium also has a grant application in place that would cover the cost, if awarded (which is also up to the Legislature).

Second, final engineering and permitting. Salmon-related grant applications have been submitted for these activities but the rankings are not especially promising. Our multiple benefits don’t necessarily appeal to funders focused on a particular concern.

Next, construction. Final design will result in final construction estimates, which will be used to seek funding. To date, only one grant application for construction, hazard mitigation via stormwater capture, has been submitted.

Finally, funding options for operations of the multiple uses of the property; these will be evaluated during final design.

Back to step one … the Legislature’s land transfer decision.

Last month the consortium hosted a tour of the proposed site with several interested parties from Olympia in attendance, including DNR and Rep. Steve Tharinger among others. In addition, we’ve met with the governor’s environmental policy advisor, state agency directors and staff, and tribal and other local government boards. Without exception, the project generates excitement from all.

For those we may never talk to in person, a video explaining the project is almost ready to post online. A letter and video link will be sent to specific decision makers on the land transfer.

If you were elected to represent Sequim-area taxpayers and had a chance to vote for such a project, would you? How would you decide? Suggestions are welcome — drop me a line.

Bell Creek Contest, con’t

After two false starts in late December and early January, Bell Creek re-started on Jan. 18. With a rainy period ahead, the seasonal flow probably will continue. We got very few guesses for this late in the season but a winner will be announced once it’s confirmed.

Geek Moment

For the 2017 water year (started Oct. 1), on Jan. 19:

• In Sequim, cumulative rainfall = 7.4 inches.

• At the SNOTEL station (elev 4,000’), snowpack = 20 inches; snow water equivalent = 6 inches (long term median = 4 inches). Days below freezing = 23.

• Dungeness River at Mile 11.8, flow = 1,500 cfs (rain + snowmelt). Bell Creek flow at North Blake Avenue = 0.5-1 cfs; at the mouth = ~1.5 cfs. (1 cfs is just less than 650,000 gallons per day)

* — Clallam County, irrigation managers, Clallam Conservation District, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Washington Water Trust, City of Sequim, Washington state Department of Ecology and Washington state Department of Fish &Wildlife.

Ann Soule is a licensed hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990. She is now resource manager for City of Sequim. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog of Gazette articles @watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.

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