Water Matters: Deluge

Water Matters: Deluge

This is supposed to be a column focused on water conservation by the local agricultural sector, but with all the rain in January and early February, water conservation isn’t exactly a hot topic.

Instead I’ve been deluged with stories about where all that rain ended up. Many people who never needed one before bought sump pumps to get water out of their crawl space or off their patios. There were several parking lots in Sequim where the rain filled up storm pipes and “drains” flowed in reverse.

You may have heard that much of Sequim has naturally rapidly-draining soils — until they don’t. When there is a series of moderate storms one after the other like we had recently, the ground is super-saturated and there isn’t time for the water table to recover to its natural level before the next rain begins.

Flooding problems in our homes and infrastructure could be design flaws or the whims of nature hitting us where it hurts, since even robust design isn’t intended to handle extremes.

The problem is that extreme weather is getting more common and the open land that formerly absorbed extreme rain is getting less open.

Bringing it back to agriculture, most people in the Sequim area live on former pasture (which was formerly prairie or forest) that handled extreme rain without a whole lot of drama.

The flood-absorbing benefit of farmland is one of several examples of how beneficial modern agriculture is to water management for the broader community. Here are some others.

Water rights

As any reader of this column knows, one can’t talk about water without talking about water rights.

Modern irrigation companies and irrigation districts have the most-senior water rights for the Dungeness River granted by the state of all Sequim-area water users, dating from the late 1800s in some cases. (That said, unquantified water rights are implied in the S’Klallam treaty with the U.S. government dating to 1855.)

Unfortunately, the state wasn’t tracking the water rights it was granting a century ago and the sum of irrigation water right certificates totaled more water than what flows in the Dungeness River in the summer. Given the state’s error, it has kept a focus on careful water management and encouraged conservation ever since. (Clallam Conservation District has been a critical source of technical assistance for County residents and especially for commercial and hobby farmers.)

Fortunately, actual irrigation needs add up to less than what was originally requested and by the end of the 20th century most of our local irrigation managers had agreed to sell substantial shares of their water rights back to the state. This agreement was extremely significant in the history of water management for the Sequim-Dungeness region because it provided flexibility for the state to mitigate the impacts of new water withdrawals for residential development — the new dominant industry.

Water rights purchased from irrigators are now used instead to intentionally recharge the aquifer each summer through infiltration, benefiting the shallow aquifer and streamflow in small creeks nearby.

Efficiency

Two conditions of a water right include its exclusivity of use and a prohibition from wasting water. In other words, a water right for irrigation is for irrigation alone, and it must be efficient. The loss of water from leaky ditches or pipes is not allowed, even if that leakage is good for the underlying aquifer.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that in Washington State, irrigated agriculture accounts for at least 60 percent of all water use. Conservation of irrigation water brings by far the most bang for the buck. Such projects have been underway in Sequim for many decades, starting with the transition from flood irrigation to sprinklers in the mid-1900s.

Since then, the easiest projects to keep irrigation managers in compliance with their water rights have already been done. This includes improving the irrigation system from its headworks to piping and lining the conveyance infrastructure and more efficient methods of application in the fields.

Forbearance

In years when there isn’t enough snowmelt flow in late summer in the Dungeness River for both salmon and irrigators, forbearance from irrigating is requested from the state – in exchange for pay. In 2019 the state paid local farmers to NOT irrigate 1,300 acres, which left almost nine cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Dungeness when it was down to about 100 cfs; at that point, every cubic foot is vital.

Staff with Washington Water Trust, which manages this “reverse leasing” program for the state, recently reported that an extrapolation of these payments out 50 years could cost the state $58 million.

A proposed off-channel reservoir project, designed to provide irrigation water during the same period, would avoid the need for forbearance and cost less than continued reverse leasing.

Partners

The multi-benefit, off-channel reservoir proposal and winter-season aquifer recharge are additional examples of the integral role irrigators play in comprehensive Dungeness watershed management that often goes unrecognized.

People can’t survive without farms, farms can’t survive without water, and good watershed management can’t survive without farmers. The recent deluge serves as a timely reminder of these critical relationships.

Tonight, Feb. 19, is the fifth lecture in the “Story of Water” series focusing on the Dungeness watershed, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Clallam County. “Irrigators and Protectors: Rights and Conservation Actions Exercised by our Farmers” will be presented by Joe Holtrop, executive director of the Clallam Conservation District, and Maple View Farm’s Ben Smith, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, in the Sequim City Council Chambers at the Sequim Civic Center, 152 W. Cedar St.

Geek Moment

Water, water, everywhere! This year is already anomalous: we’ve had record winter precipitation but yet no river flooding, and forecasts of drought!

The Dungeness Snotel station at elevation 4,101 feet reports snow-water equivalent (SWE, the amount of water you’d have if you melted a given amount of snow) at 160 percent of the long-term median.

The same station indicates total precipitation at only 77 percent.

For the 2020 Water Year (started Oct. 1):

• Snow depth at the Dungeness SNOTEL station, elev. 4,010 feet, as of Feb. 18: 19 inches; Number of days temperature stayed below freezing = 11.

• Rain in Sequim at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level) thru Feb. 9: Total rainfall = 11.6 inches; High temperature = 63 degrees Farenheight on Oct. 16; Low = 20 degrees Farenheight in November.

• River flow at the USGS gage on the Dungeness River (Mile 11.2): Highest max daily mean (new) = 1,880 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Feb. 1; Low = 98 cfs on Dec. 16. Range for the past month ~200-1,900 cfs.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: up to 8 cfs; Bell Creek near the mouth, at Washington Harbor: non-storm flow generally 5-10 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.

More in Opinion

Don Brunell
Guest opinion: Coronavirus spurring air cargo growth

It’s no secret that airlines and airplane manufacturers have been clobbered by… Continue reading

Crystal Linn
Aging Successfully: Gratitude, thankfulness and mental health

Have you ever stopped to consider the differences between the words gratitude… Continue reading

Sara Brabant dresses as “Weird Al” Yankovic for Halloween saying “my hair was just right.” She reminds us all to have fun as we can in these weird times. Photo courtesy of Oak Table Cafe
Reporter’s Notebook: Weird, wild and thankfulness

“Well, that’s weird!” Bill said of the funny coincidence. “No, that’s just… Continue reading

Jeremy Field, regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration (courtesy photo)
Guest opinion: Shopping small for 2020 holiday season needed more than ever

It’s no secret that the Coronavirus pandemic has made a huge impact… Continue reading

Guest opinion: A climate changes-based apology

An apology to family and friends: I have been well prepared by… Continue reading

Don Brunell
Guest opinion: Military diversity’s lifeline

Diversity in the ranks has been the lifeline of our all-volunteer military,… Continue reading

USEPA Photo by Eric Vance. Public domain image
Being Frank: A time to remember

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of an event that sparked the… Continue reading

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.
Guest opinion: Washington needs manufacturing to lead the economic recovery

Kaitlyn Pype wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life,… Continue reading

Guest opinion: Time for our communities to come together

Time for our communities to come together To our communities: We are… Continue reading

Linda B. Myers
From the Back Nine: And the winner is …

This “opinion piece” will run the day after the election; I am… Continue reading

Bertha Cooper
Think About It: ‘Children will listen’

“Careful the things you say. Children will listen.” Some of you will… Continue reading

Letters to the Editor — Oct. 28, 2020

‘Fear-mongering’ flyers defy reality I received a baseless, fear-mongering flier by the… Continue reading