Impacts of irrigation heightened by drought

This could be the first year irrigators in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley get cut off from the Dungeness River before the irrigation season draws to a close, Joe Holtrop, Clallam Conservation District executive director, explained to those attending an irrigation seminar hosted by WSU Clallam County Extension.

This could be the first year irrigators in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley get cut off from the Dungeness River before the irrigation season draws to a close, Joe Holtrop, Clallam Conservation District executive director, explained to those attending an irrigation seminar hosted by WSU Clallam County Extension.

The area’s irrigation season spans from April 15-Sept. 15, and already Ben Smith, president of the Dungeness River Agricultural Water Users Association, has asked all waters users — particularly those using irrigation ditch water — to implement conservation methods immediately.

Throughout the first week of August, the Dungeness River was flowing at about 108 cubic feet per second — flows far from normal, Holtrop said.

The “low level has triggered our first-tier drought response,” Smith said.

Because the Dungeness River historically has been and continues be a lifeline to all those living nearby, officials with Dungeness Water Users Association, comprising the seven senior irrigation districts and companies, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Department of Ecology rely on an agreement established in 1998 to help manage the water resource. Based on the voluntary agreement, irrigators can’t take more than 50 percent of the river and always must leave a minimum of 62 cfs in the river.

The low river condition and the associated hardships are the result of a statewide drought declared by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 15.

However, the Olympic Peninsula was one of the first areas recognized as experiencing warm, dry conditions and labeled with drought in early March. “We’ve never experienced a drought like this,” Maia Bellon, director of Washington State Department of Ecology, said. “What started as a drought driven by low snowpack is deepening with little rain.”

The Olympic Peninsula recently experienced the driest May on record since 1895.


Reclaimed water pilot project

Spurred by the drought, officials with the City of Sequim are in the midst of piloting a project utilizing some of the city’s reclaimed water for irrigation.

The approval from officials with Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Health allowed Interim City Manager Craig Ritchie to sign a contract July 28 to pursue the pilot project in collaboration with owners of Maple View Farm and Highland Irrigation District.

“This is a big deal,” Pete Tjemsland, City of Sequim utilities manager, said. “Getting three state agencies to sign off on this in one week is unheard of.”

Using Bell Creek as a means of transportation, David Garlington, City of Sequim public works director, anticipates being able to convey about 250,000 gallons of reclaimed water through the creek per day.

Typically, the city’s Water Reclamation Facility produces about 600,000 gallons of class “A” reclaimed water per day. Of that, about 400,000 gallons are being dumped into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Garlington said. Some of the water is used on city parks, soccer fields and city-owned toilets, but distribution of the reclaimed water is limited by infrastructure.

“I think it’s an excellent use of the reclaimed water,” Smith said, who co-owns Maple View Farm. “It’s always been a disappointment that a lot of that water is just going out into the strait.”

Based on the quantity of water city officials estimate to provide, Smith equates that to about 0.5 cfs on a somewhat steady basis. Knowing this, he plans to irrigate about 40 acres.

The pilot project should allow Smith to continue to irrigate a portion of the dairy’s pasture, reducing his need to buy feed from out of town and possibly reduce the amount of water being drawn from the Dungeness River — leaving more water in the river for fish.

Although there’s been interest from the farming community to use the water for irrigation, it’s been too expensive to realistically pursue, Smith said.

“My hope would be if the city doesn’t have paying customers, they’ll continue to use it for local agriculture and fish,” he said.

But, in the face of the drought and with no market for the amount of reclaimed water, city officials are more than willing to put some of the reclaimed water toward a proactive use.

“The bulk of the water doesn’t get used, so I can’t think of any better way than using it for agricultural purposes,” Garlington said.

Looking ahead, Garlington would like to monitor the pilot project and determine whether there’s a corresponding positive impact on the river. If so, city officials plan to show the evidence to the Washington Department of Ecology in hopes the agency could provide mitigation credit, which then can be used to acquire other water rights, he said.

The amount of available reclaimed water is less in the summer than winter because of the city’s seasonal demand, but Garlington also is interested in developing a wintertime use for the water.

Infiltrating the reclaimed water back into the ground and/or creating a storage system are possibilities, but “how that comes about physically, politically and regulatory is still unclear,” he said.


Water management

Sequim and the Dungeness Valley have a long past embedded in irrigation for successful agriculture. The Sequim Prairie Ditch Company first began constructing the first irrigation ditch in 1895. By the following year, the community celebrated its first Irrigation Festival.

Given Sequim’s geographic location, wedged between the Olympic Mountain range and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the area only gets about 17 inches of annual rainfall and is considered the driest coastal community north of Los Angeles, Holtrop said.

“If we didn’t have an irrigation system in this valley, it wouldn’t be able to support agriculture and this would be a very different place,” he said.

Between the late 1890s and today, irrigation within the area has evolved from flood irrigation, which changed the hydrology of the valley, to sprinklers, Holtrop said. Instead of open ditches, there’s been an ongoing effort to pipe most of the ditches for increased water efficiency and conservation.

The Clallam Conservation District is heavily involved in increasing irrigation efficiency, such as piping irrigation ditches, helping farmers convert to more water efficient irrigation systems and developing and implementing aquifer recharge projects.

Although water management techniques continue to develop, the success of agriculture still relies heavily on the Dungeness River, but with the drought and low river flows, Holtrop and his colleagues are exploring alternative ways of managing water.

Developing aquifer recharge sites aimed at capturing water from the river during the winter and higher flows are under way, as well as initial discussions with Department of Natural Resources about a possible reservoir site.

The property owned by the DNR along River Road would provide space for an 80-acre reservoir.

“It would be the biggest body of water between Lake Sutherland and Jefferson County,” Holtrop said. “I think a project of this size would need to have some federal help.”

To pursue the DNR property for use of a reservoir is likely to be expensive, estimated at about $30 million.

“It’s going to be costly, but with climate change this (drought conditions) could be more normal,” Holtrop said. “We’ve been relying on the frozen water in the mountains, but there is none this year.”

Also limiting water use, the Department of Ecology implemented the Dungeness Water Rule in 2013.

“The rule closes streams, rivers and ground water to new water use without mitigation,” Amanda Cronin, project manager with the nonprofit Washington Water Trust.

The Washington Water Trust manages the Dungeness “water bank” or “water exchange,” Cronin said, and although the Dungeness water bank is the only one in western Washington, the Washington Water Trust manages water banks throughout the state.

Using 175 cfs of water that the nonprofit purchased from the Dungeness Water Users Association, they’ve issued a variety of mitigation packages to new water users subject to the Dungeness Water Rule. The exchange has issued 76 indoor water packages, five outdoor, six extended outdoor, two stock water and one mitigation certificate to the Clallam County Public Utilities District.

“The rate it’s going with primarily small packages being chosen, we should be able to provide more than 1,000 certificates with the 175 cfs purchased,” Cronin said.

Funds earned from selling water packages are invested back into other mitigation projects within the watershed.

The increased effort to more carefully manage the area’s water resource is “not a question of annual quantity of water, but it’s a question of time,” Cronin said. “It’s an issue of peak water need, salmon retuning to the river and low river flows all colliding at the same time.”

 

Fostering future farmers

The average age of a farmer in the United State is 70 years old, Clea Rome, county director for the WSU Clallam County Extension, told those attending a “Impacts of Irrigation” seminar on Aug. 6. Thus, in a collaborative effort with local farmers the Extension office is offering an internship program within Clallam County for the first time.

“We’re trying to help foster the next generation of farmers,” Rome said. “So far it’s been really great and we’re excited to grow the program and connect with more farmers.”

The internship operates under Extension’s Cultivating Success program and to start has two interns enrolled, Joe Evans and Leah Potter-Weight — both from Michigan — and working at River Run Farm off Woodcock Road in Sequim.

“I’m loving the program,” Potter-Weight said. “It’s a great blend of hands-on work on the farm mixed with a big educational component.”

Since last fall, officials with Extension have been working with local farmers to create the curriculum for the interns.

“The drought has shaped our curriculum,” Rome said. “I think there’s nothing like being emerged in the industry to really learn what takes to be a farmer.”

In addition to working on a farm, there are many off-farm educational opportunities, such as the seminar hosted by Extension exploring the local impacts of irrigation. Interns are given the chance to connect with other interns participating with Jefferson County Extension.

“It’s all about learning how to nourish ourselves and the environment … sustainable farming is the way to do that,” Evans said.

Following the end of the internship, Evans hopes to stay in the area and “learn as much” as he can, he said.

Potter-Weight also anticipates staying near Sequim once her internship ends by continuing to work on a farm while completing prerequisites online in preparation for graduate school.

For more information on the program, contact WSU Clallam County Extension at 417-2279 or visit ext100.wsu.edu/clallam/.