Relief from Clallam’s dry spell

Planning proved key for farmers combating drought impacts, though state climatologist warns warming trend isn’t over.

Scott Chichester

Scott Chichester

The onset of fall with cooler temperatures and rain showers may seem to indicate the statewide drought is over, but for many Sequim-Dungeness Valley farmers the impacts of a warm winter and dry summer still are lingering or yet to come.

Despite the change of seasons, Sequim and the greater Olympic Peninsula is considered to be in a state of “severe drought” according to the United States Drought Monitor produced through a partnership among the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Olympic Peninsula was one of the first areas a drought emergency was declared as early as March because both the agricultural and residential communities are heavily reliant on surface water-related supplies, Ginny Stern, Washington Department of Health hydrogeologist, said. Secondly, the hydrology of the area doesn’t lend itself to large storage reservoirs and that “creates real challenges.”

“This historic drought is not over and we’re already planning for next year,” Maia Bellon, Washington State Department of Ecology director, said. “There’s growing concern we may not get our winter snowpack in the mountains and if we don’t, the harm will be felt much earlier next year and be more costly.”

Already DOE officials plan to allocate more money toward leasing water from farmers and large-scale irrigators as early as January to help prepare, she said.


Early preparation

Both proactive and early planning proved beneficial among local farmers working to buffer threats imposed by the drought.

Anticipating a short irrigation season with little to no snowpack available to maintain the Dungeness River’s typical flow, Ben Smith, president of the Dungeness River Agricultural Water Users Association and co-owner of Maple View Farm, participated in this year’s dry-year leasing program offered by the Washington Water Trust.

Using funds from the Washington Department of Ecology, the nonprofit tasked with managing water, paid willing farmers the costs associated with not irrigating during the late season.

The usual irrigation season spans from April 15-Sept. 15.

Smith plans to use the money from the program to source hay to help account for the feed he wasn’t able to grow locally to support his dairy operation.

Taking precautionary measures, Smith also saved hay from the previous year and opted to grow a different variety of corn known for maturing quicker, but with the trade-off of a lower yield.

Although Smith believes the early and proactive steps he took early in the year helped to lessen the impacts of the drought, the drought’s effect still will reflect on the farm’s bottom line.

Smith estimates his corn yield is down about 5-10 percent and having gotten one less cutting of hay, he guesses his hay production volume at about 75-80 percent of normal. The lack of hay leaves Smith with less hay to sell to the community, let alone support his own dairy.

“We’ll be doing some number crunching this winter to help plan for next year and assess what worked,” he said. “The drought could have had huge impacts, but a whole bunch of little aspects came together to lessen what could have been terrible.”

Things like a rainy spring and the early onset of most crops helped to offset some of the impacts of no snowpack, followed by little precipitation, Smith said. And, although the drought caused lower yields among some crops, other did well.

“Our grain yields were great,” Smith said.

Fruit trees also tended to thrive.

“Apples do well in dry, warm areas,” Jim House, Olympic Orchard Society president, said. “And things like scab (a fungus that infects apples) doesn’t do well during dry years, like it does when it’s damp and cool.”

Like Smith, those at Nash’s Organic Produce, another longtime Sequim-Dungeness farming operation, made an early effort to combat the possible problems related to drought.

“We were anticipating not having irrigation by late July, early August so we made decisions early on in the year based on our assumptions” Patty McManus-Huber, co-owner of Nash’s Organic Produce, said. “I wouldn’t say we weren’t impacted, but we were lucky and we planned early.”

Because farming always is vulnerable to factors, like weather, a percentage of the annual crop loss is expected, McManus-Huber said, “but that’s why we have a diverse farm.”

Beyond distancing themselves from mono-crops, farmers at Nash’s choose to plant water-reliant vegetables in fields with well access and made precautionary agreements with neighboring landowners to use their wells if need be, McManus-Huber said.

Farm owner Nash Huber also invested a lot in drip lines.

“We were impressed with the results and found the drip lines to be very useful on certain crops like potatoes and squash,” McManus-Huber said. “They’re a good quality and reusable so now we’ll be able to continue to use them.”

The dry and early growing season did provide a first for Nash’s Organic Produce, in that they were able to harvest all their grain crops prior to September’s moisture, McManus-Huber said.

“Overall, our plan seemed to work this year so we’ll be carrying our experience with us moving into next year,” she said. “We were pleasantly surprised that the water kept flowing this season, but here’s hoping.”

Echoing Smith and McManus-Huber, owners of Clark Farms, Tom and Holly Clark, also made adjustments in response to the drought.

“This year caused us to switch gears,” Holly Clark said. “Adapting and changing farming practices for changing weather are all things farmers are savvy to, but this year just made the decision for us.”

Nudged by the drought, the Clarks decided to rely more heavily on their construction business in order to buy equipment, like a round baler, to better equip themselves for future farming in what seems to a shifting climate, she said.

Like Smith, the drought hindered the Clarks’ ability to bale and put up a normal amount of hay, leaving only hay for their livestock. Additionally, to help with pasture management in the midst of a dry year, the Clarks opted to sell some calves.

“We’ll see the impacts of that two years from now,” Holly Clark said.


Maintaining the river

In working with the Washington Water Trust, the Clarks don’t irrigate during the later part of irrigation season and instead rely on their deep, third aquifer well. This year, however, they decided to draw water from their well even earlier than normal despite the costs of running the powerful pump (about $1,500/month) because of low river flows.

“We started using the well early July,” Holly Clark said.

Use of the well causes community-wide benefits because the less water diverted from the Dungeness River and its tributaries, the more water available to sustain river flows for spawning salmon and other farmers dependent on irrigation, she explained.

Also helping to keep sustain the river flows, Smith and the water users association asked the community to conserve water during the irrigation season.

“It was very successful,” Smith said.

Community water conservation efforts likely allowed irrigators another couple of weeks worth of water use without many restrictions, he said.

However, by the last four to six weeks of the irrigation season, irrigators relied on a spreadsheet to the manage the daily amount of water being diverged.

Using the spreadsheet in conjunction with the daily flow of the Dungeness River, irrigators were able to individually calculate how much water they could withdraw that day and could therefore plan, Smith said.

“The system seemed to work pretty good,” he said, noting how heavily dependent “commercial agriculture is on the river and ability to irrigate.”


Collaborative effort

Public water conservation measures and water management practices implemented by farmers weren’t the only efforts being done to maintain river flows. Smith also turns his gratitude toward the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe and their work within the river to ensure fish passage.

“I really appreciate the amount of time they spent working in the river this year,” he said.

Officials with the tribe were successful in procuring a drought grant through the Department of Ecology. The grant helped buy supplies, equipment and manpower needed to maintain adequate fish passage within the Dungeness River and surrounding waterways.

“We felt we had some pretty good results in providing fish passage,” Scott Chitwood, Jamestown S’Klallam tribe natural resources department director, said. “For example, we had evidence that the pink salmon made it all the way up to the basin to where they normally would.”

The forecasted number of pink salmon estimated to return to the Dungeness River (originally expected to be 1-1.3 million) was concerning given the low river flows, but only a “fraction” of the pink salmon thought to return throughout the Salish Sea, including the Dungeness River, actually did, Chitwood said.

Still, given the relatively large number of salmon that did return to the Dungeness River, if few flood conditions occur, Chitwood anticipates an “enormous fry productions this January, February and March.”

No numbers have been confirmed, but Chitwood estimates about 400 chinook salmon also returned to river. Of those, more than 100 adults were collected using a weir in the lower stretch of the river and provided 281,000 eggs for the 2015 hatchery brood-stock program, he said.

They also use the weir capture program to move some adult salmon to transport beyond the extremely low flowing areas.

“The hatchery crew tagged all those fish and it’s not clear at this point whether that was successful or not, but we’ll sort that out with some post-season analysis and see if the tagged fish actually stayed higher up in the system, which was what the intent was,” Chitwood said.

While local farmers and managers of the area’s natural resources spend the next couple of months confirming numbers, yields and evaluating their response to the drought, state climatologist Nick Bond with the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, suggests “the odds are strongly tilted toward another toasty winter.”

“It bears noting that is unlikely to be as extreme as last winter but it’s possible,” he said. “We probably have about a 10-15 percent chance of having a winter as warm as the last one with El Niño rearing its ugly head in the tropic Pacific and it’s of the magnitude and type that is strongly associated with warmer than normal temperates in this area.”

“The bottom line is we need to be prepared for reduced snowpack at the end of next winter,” he said.

 

Reach Alana Linderoth at alinderoth@sequimgazette.com.

 

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