Water Matters: How our water works

‘Story of Water’

“The Story of Water: In Depth” monthly lecture series starts Wednesday October 23, 6:30pm, City Council Chambers, Sequim Civic Center, 152 W. Cedar St.

“How Our Water System Works: Hydrogeology of the Dungeness Watershed” will be presented by hydrogeologists Ann Soule (City of Sequim), Carol Creasey (Clallam County), and John Stednick (Colorado State University, retired), all of whom contributed to the local League of Women Voters water education study group over the past two years.

Oct. 23 is also the fifth-annual “Imagine a Day Without Water,” sponsored by the U.S. Water Alliance. Participants will leave with a special appreciation of water’s value.

The following is a preface to the upcoming kickoff for “The Story of Water” lecture series – see above

We say water is the essence of life. What is the origin of water?

What are the seasonal cycles and patterns in Sequim that gave us our prairie with native oak and cactus, our historically abundant salmon, our agricultural history and this place retirees flock to?

Spoiler alert: They all have to do with water.

Starting with the 30,000-foot view, there’s the famous Blue Hole over Sequim reported by airplane pilots that grants us the moniker “Sunny Sequim.” What pilots and all of us are seeing is the physical manifestation of the Olympic Mountain rain shadow in which Sequim sits.

Fewer clouds leads to our low annual rainfall relative to watersheds to the west, south and east of us, further evidence of orographic influence and explaining the cactus and oak prairie as well as flocking retirees.

To explain our salmon runs that evolved despite low rainfall we look to the mountains casting that rain shadow. For many millennia those mountains captured enough snow to form glaciers, the movements of which carved the lovely peaks we love to see on our southern horizon.

Glaciers grow with each annual snowpack and shrink each summer, delivering a cold snowmelt “freshet” to the Dungeness River starting in about April. Several different species of salmon evolved to spawn in the River in the early, middle, or late summer, adapting to the typical flow conditions of their spawning season.

It was the annual rise of the Dungeness River from its snowmelt freshet that farmers in the late 19th century recognized as a windfall source of water for irrigation. If it could be diverted and delivered to their farms, larger-scale agriculture could be feasible in Sequim’s mild climate. Within 25 years there were hundreds of miles of hand-dug irrigation ditches criss-crossing the former desert and hundreds of small dairies, hay fields and gardens cropping up.

A century later it was discovered that the River, through its streambed, also supplies about a quarter of the recharge to the groundwater system, likely during the freshet; the remainder of the recharge to the aquifer system is from incident precipitation, leaks in the irrigation system, and inflow from bedrock fractures under the foothills.

Finally, what about keeping flocks of human retirees watered?

For that we must dive deep – into subterranean reservoirs of water tapped by straws long and short, and into geologic history. There are three defined aquifers underlying the broader

Sequim region, composed of alternating layers of sand, gravel, and fine sediment deposited during Ice Age cooling and warming periods. During these periods the front of the ice sheet advanced as far as the Olympic Mountains and retreated during warming periods back into British Columbia. Each period of glacial expansion and recession lasted thousands of years until the end of the Ice Age about 13,000 years ago.

Over thousands of years since then the “Proto-Dungeness River” meandered and rearranged glacial deposits into large floodplain channels first trending east, where we now have Bell Creek, and then northeast along stream courses now named Gierin, Cassalery, and Cooper Creeks.

The original western settlers seeking clean drinking water benefited from Sequim’s history of glaciation in two ways. First, glacial deposits make ideal aquifers because a lot of water can be stored in the air pockets within gravel and sand. Second, irrigation ditches carved into gravel tend to leak, and the water table was raised several feet each summer during irrigation season for nearly 100 years. This meant landowners could tap a good drinking water source with quite a shallow well, albeit dependent on a non-natural source of recharge. Irrigation system leaks were fixed starting in the late 20th century, contributing to a drop in the regional water table.

21st century questions

“What are the trends in water levels in the aquifers and water quality in our wells?”

“Is there really enough water for continued growth in Sequim in light of climate change?”

“Are the Dungeness River salmon runs going extinct?”

Good questions like these are the reason there’s an educational lecture series starting this month called “The Story of Water in the Dungeness.” The League of Women Voters of Clallam County organized the series to follow on its recent film “From Source to Sea,” currently being made available to community groups and for public showings this fall.

On Oct. 23, the kickoff lecture dives deep and explore beyond the basic water cycle into the origin of groundwater, springs, and streams in the Dungeness Watershed. The underpinnings of the physical watershed and data trends for current water conditions will be shared, providing a great foundation for subsequent lectures in the Story of Water series.

Geek moment

Summary of the 2019 Water Year: By the start of spring, a declining snowpack foretold trouble in regional rivers and watersheds by late summer. Indeed, almost all irrigation and drinking water purveyors asked for voluntary or mandatory water conservation measures to ease the strain on their wells and river diversions.

Outdoor watering in summer can double the indoor demand and cutting back (adhering to minimum crop requirements) is an easy way for domestic water customers to conserve.

As it turned out, mid-summer brought normal, intermittent showers rather than the predicted dryness. But September – peak low-flow season in the Dungeness River – boasted almost 3 inches of rain compared to the normal 0.8 of an inch. Stream flow levels bounced up from the threshold crisis they were headed toward.

The 2019 Water Year closed in late September in good fashion, with four inches of fresh snow logged at the Dungeness SNOTEL station at elevation 4,010 feet. It was great to see snow again at the top of the watershed at the start of a new Water Year on October first.

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

• Rain in Sequim through October 9 at the Sequim 2E weather station (sea level): Total rainfall = 0.2 inches; High temperature = 60 deg. F on Oct. 3; Low = 29 deg. F on Oct. 9.

• River flow at the USGS gage on the Dungeness River (Mile 11.2): High = 171 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Oct. 8; Low = 121 cfs on Oct. 6. Currently = 208 cfs. Range for the past month ~120-200 cfs.

• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: none; Bell Creek at Washington Harbor: early autumn flow ~2 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.