Water Matters: The ‘Grandfather Fir’

In my foothills neighborhood we recently lost our sentry tree, a 500-year old Douglas Fir towering above the 100-year old forest. Fire is a periodic visitor throughout the Northwest and apparently devastated this particular stand — with the exception of Grandfather Fir.

The stand is thick enough now that Grandfather was hard to pick out unless there was a ground fog that made his height obvious from the vantage point of our road across the valley.

Once you knew where to look, and found him, it was mesmerizing. Best to stop the car and just stare at the lone sentinel with stately branches, muscled from the weight of centuries’ growth of needles and cones.

A friend and neighbor sought the giant out from ground level many years ago, and others forged a long trail to its base. Once there, one fingered the deeply furrowed bark, marveled at the trunk’s straightness, imagined sea birds nesting in crooks far above.

A touchstone for special-occasion walks — “forest bathing” as they say — that Grandfather tree made the hike extra significant even if you lived close by.

Some pretty famous poets visited, paying homage to a living relic.

I’ve wondered before how ancient trees that escape harvest eventually die: does “dying of old age” apply to trees? Is it more likely sudden or slow and imperceptible?

What causes a mighty tree which survived five centuries of wind, rain, and fire to suddenly fall?

Not surprisingly, disease is the most common culprit. Root or stem rot can be caused by changes in drainage, and significant damage to any part of a tree lowers its long-term resistance to disease.

For Grandfather Fir, it was both sudden and slow. A late winter windstorm took him down, breaking the trunk just above the base and exposing a core of airy, rotten pulp. Perhaps there was a change in soil moisture, or perhaps the constant exposure of its top half took a toll.

A massive tree fell in the forest and no humans were around to hear the sounds: a snap, crushing of neighboring trees, and final crash. The sound of silence was waiting when fallen Grandfather Fir was discovered by his admirers. The kind of deep silence found in murky, dark forests busy producing more trees.

More recently …

The annual Irrigation Festival officially kicked off with a tradition that involves a headgate, a valve, or a sprinkler delivering Dungeness River water to thirsty farm fields. It’s the ceremonial start to irrigation season by local royalty letting river water into a ditch.

It’s fun to think that a drop of that irrigation water was a snowflake a couple months ago, landing on a snowfield in the upper Dungeness watershed.

Perhaps it was in the Greywolf drainage, the Cameron — or Royal Creek!

The future drop of irrigation water froze in place, turning into an ice crystal if it was cold and deep enough. Spring sunshine eventually warmed that icy snowfield and our future drop suddenly couldn’t resist the downward pull of gravity. The drop oozed across older ice crystals during the day but solidified at night, over and over until it finally merged with a steady stream of fellow drops.

As one of the first drops rushing downhill this year it became a little silty and the stream was looking brown. Not to worry: this drop had business to conduct involving dirt anyway.

Under the headgate and past the fish screen, our drop was in an irrigation canal — a smoother ride than the bumpy River had been.

But then a quick change of course, a sucking feeling, and whee! Suddenly the drop is propelled through the air above a field of brown furrows.

Voila! Irrigation season begins.

Geek moment

How ‘bout that snowpack? Back in April I was delighted to see a fresh blanket of snow on the southern skyline every time the rain clouds cleared, and figured we’d still see snow up there in August. In fact, a very warm May so far means it’s melting quickly.

Even though snow depth was greater than average much of the winter, the May 1 Snotel numbers show it was almost gone at that elevation (4,010 feet, roughly 1,500 feet lower than the top of the watershed). This was not the case on May 1 in 2011 and 2012, even though March 1 depths were similar for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2018.

Talk about melting … southern Pakistan logged 122.4 degrees F in April, a new global record for the month. I’m adding temperature statistics to my geeky compilation here … for the record.

For the 2018 water year (started Oct. 1, 2017):

• At Sequim 2E weather station (elev. 25 feet), Cumulative rainfall = 18 inches (way above normal); Most rainfall in 24 hours= 1.14 inches on Dec. 18; Lowest temperature = 21 degrees F on Jan. 31; Highest temperature = 79 degrees F on May 13!

• At the Dungeness SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet) =N/A (webpage not available but see snowpack notes above)

• At the USGS gage on the Dungeness River (Mile 11.2), Highest flow = 2,980 cfs on Nov. 23; Lowest flow = 101 cfs on Oct. 16. Range for the past month is 300-1,000 cfs (1 cubic foot per second, or just less than 650,000 gallons per day)

On the morning of May 14, 2018:

• Rain-free and warm for a week!

• Dungeness River = 850 cfs (rising from snowmelt, as usual in May).

• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park = no flow; at the mouth at Washington Harbor = 2-3 cfs.

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.