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

From the Back Nine: Three months behind the mask

I imagine you’ve had the same issues with masks that I have;… Continue reading

Think About It: Vulnerable me, vulnerable you

“None of us could have imagined spending extended time in isolation at… Continue reading

Bieng Frank: A bold move on salmon habitat

The greatest obstacle to salmon recovery in western Washington is that we… Continue reading

Guest opinion: Washington state needs to change to stay on top

In early June, the financial website WalletHub released its rankings of “Best… Continue reading

Aging Successfully: Gardening systems for the non-gardener

By Crystal Linn For the Sequim Gazette First, congratulations to contest winners… Continue reading

Guest opinion: A struggling economy is no time to raise taxes

Hundreds of our fellow citizens stepped up to run for elected office… Continue reading

Think About It: Kneeling for help

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former pro football quarterback, took a knee for… Continue reading

Guest column: Time to start a conversation

By Sheri Crain For the Sequim Gazette We have all watched the… Continue reading

Water Column: 2020 vision

I’ll do my best to bring water into this water column, but… Continue reading

CommunityPlus: Guns and protests

Why do people show up at public rallies or demonstrations fully armed?… Continue reading

From the Back Nine: Lockdown lessons

I have read some terrific articles on living in lockdown. This is… Continue reading

Think About It: Something old, something new

My brother and I stood outside the grey building looking up at… Continue reading