Drought precautions under way in Clallam County

Dry-year lease program is aimed at conserving water

Without a reservoir system and with little to no snowpack in the Olympic Mountains, officials with Washington Water Trust are in the midst of spearheading a dry-year leasing program with funds from the Washington Department of Ecology.

The program targets the last 30 days of the irrigation season, beginning mid-August, and is intended as a mechanism to conserve water and maintain surface water flows. To offset the cost of irrigating during the late season, Washington Water Trust officials have $200,000 to pay willing water users.

“We’ve had some interest already,” Amanda Cronin, Washington Water Trust project manager, said. “We would like to lease as many acres as possible.

The Dungeness Valley is one of, if not the largest area, to rely on irrigation and surface water in Western Washington, Cronin said. Within the valley an estimated 5,700 irrigated acres are under the Dungeness Water Users Association.

In collaboration with members of Dungeness Water Users Association, Washington Water Trust personnel mailed 53 solicitations for the volunteer lease program, Cronin said. Any bids for the program are due today, April 15, to the Washington Water Trust.

By the end of the month Washington Water Trust officials will respond to bids and accepted contracts between water users and the water trust are to be finalized. Once participating water users cease irrigating on Aug. 15, Cronin and her colleagues will monitor the leased acres.

While local farmers are faced with managing little water for their crops, officials with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe also are preparing for the drought and the possible impacts it could bring.

“We’re thinking about surface flows,” Scott Chitwood, natural resources director for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said. “What influences groundwater influences surface flow and vice versa.”

From Chitwood’s perspective, the main concern with the predicted drought is the diminished ability for adult salmonids to travel upstream and restricted amount of usable habitat for juvenile salmonids.

“If the river forecasts are accurate, we’ll probably be looking at flows less than 50 cfs (cubic foot per second) which is probably the lowest anyone alive today has ever seen,” Chitwood said.

Although Chitwood feels the dry-year leasing program is a “solid concept,” he said the lowest flows actually could be experienced after the program ends.

“We could be looking at the lowest flows after the irrigation season,” he said. “Following through with the public and irrigators in late September/early October still will be important. We need to be prepared for brown lawns.”

However, Chitwood noted, with modern technology and thus better forecast abilities, more time to ready for drought response strategies is available.

Throughout the summer months Chitwood and his staff will focus on the Dungeness River and evaluate whether they need to enlist extra help to adjust riffles within the river to better allow fish passage, for example. Following the summer, the tribe turns its attention more toward smaller streams such as Jimmycomelately Creek.

During past droughts, Clallam County officials have taken measures, such as permit restrictions, in response to dry conditions, but no action has taken place yet, Mary Ellen Winborn, Clallam County Department of Community Development director, said.

“We know it’s (drought) an issue,” she said.

Winborn plans to be participate in a community drought forum still being planned but anticipated to occur Thursday, May 21.

The Olympic Peninsula was among three regions in the state that Gov. Jay Inslee declared drought-struck in mid-March. To manage the challenges of far below average snowpack and thus water supply, DOE officials have a request into the Legislature for $9 million for drought relief, Dan Partridge, communications manager for DOE’s Water Resources Program, said.

The relief funds, similar to those being allocated for the dry-year leasing program, may be used for agricultural and fisheries projects, emergency water-right permits, changes to existing water rights and grant water-right transfers.