The Dirt Issue 23 – Farming & Flooding in the Skagit Valley

Posted on February 6, 2018
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It’s hard to imagine a livelihood more governed by the effects of weather than farming.

For a farmer, the weather dictates when a crop can be planted, where it can be planted, and whether successive crops can be planted in that field in the same growing season. Take last year’s spring planting as an example: farmers were ready and waiting-lots and lots of waiting-for soil to dry enough to get crops planted without the risk of their equipment over-compacting too-moist soils. Depending on the specific type of soil and the drainage capacity of a given field, the delay could be a few days or several weeks.
 
Planting season is just the beginning. The weather dictates harvest and even the condition of farm animals. A too-mild winter doesn’t kill off certain bacteria and parasites that impact livestock. This constant give-and-take is why farmers must pay such fierce attention to weather.
 
Some weather events are par for the course.

Look around the valley just now and you’ll see lots of fields under water due to the heavy rains we’ve had of late. This condition is a familiar one in the valley; farmers expect it and prepare for it. In areas prone to such temporary flooding, fields are trenched to help them drain more rapidly and in a few days’ time (as long as the rains actually subside) the excess water will drain away and all will stabilize.
 
But some weather events are game changing.

Take the double-pump floods of November 1990 as an example. Any way you look at it, it was extreme. October 1990 was wet, really wet, dumping as much as 135- to 217-percent of normal rainfall at locations across Western Washington. But, November was even wetter. The seven weeks leading up to the first flood, November 8 to 14 and including Veterans’ Day, were so wet, with so little respite, that all normal drainage and storage outlets were already at capacity.
 
A series of meteorological events occurred, but chief among them was a Pineapple Express, an atmospheric river of warm, moist air flowing from the general region of the Hawaiian Islands. It melted early-season mountain snow and merged that runoff with direct precipitation of 12- to 16-inches over those first five days of flooding.
 
According to the National Disaster Survey Report issued by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in February 1991, “Considerable damage was reported, particularly near the mouth of the Skagit River where a levee failed and evacuations were necessary.” The report went on to say, “Fir Island, with 8,000 acres of farmland and 167 homes dependent on flood protection by a system of levees and dikes, was completely inundated after the levee system was breached.” During the first flood, agricultural losses throughout Skagit County were estimated at $4-million, 137 homes on Fir Island received major damage, and $400,000 was spent for emergency repair to the levee.
 
In the period between the first and second floods, wet weather continued, but temperatures plummeted so much that snow levels fells to near 1,000 feet. By Thanksgiving Day, November 22, snow on the ground measured between 15- and 50-inches up to the 5,000-foot level.
 
Then it happened again, only more so. By Thanksgiving Day, the new Pineapple Express met up with a trough emanating from the Aleutian Islands and the contrasting temperatures and wind directions caused snow levels to climb to 5,500 feet in the Northern Cascades. Even more rain fell than the first time and with it came snowmelt so rapid that six-foot diameter culverts were upended along mountain passes.
 
To add insult to injury, December brought arctic-air windstorms that literally froze the floodwaters still inundating Fir Island.
 
How did they cope?

Setting aside the homes, outbuildings and equipment damaged or destroyed by floods, the farmers’ first concern, once the flood waters melted and drained, was the condition of the land itself. By November, most crops were already harvested and the land was either resting fallow or under a cover crop. Any food crops that might have been in the fields or, if stored, were in contact with floodwaters would-according to FDA regulations-have to be discarded, destroyed or tilled into the soil.
 
But, before that could happen, all that farmland had to be cleaned up. Debris was gathered and removed or left to dry out sufficiently to be burned. Excess sediment either had to be removed or, when possible, redistributed to not exceed four inches in depth (the amount that can be buried with tillage). Any erosion had to be addressed.
 
Did it work?

Consider these numbers: The USDA Census of Agriculture is taken every five years and the 1990 floods occurred between those of 1987 and 1992. Skagit County’s market value of agricultural goods sold in 1987 was $102,532,000; by 1992, it had climbed to $138,471,000, a 35-percent increase! Potato production jumped 223-percent from 1987 to 1992 and much of the crop was/is grown on Fir Island.
 
The resilience of farmers

Seen from the road, it may have seemed a long time for Fir Island farms to look whole again. Many homes were elevated, outbuildings shored up or replaced, and equipment restored. Levees were strengthened and enlarged, and flood control measures were adjusted. But long before all that work was finished, the farms were yielding their bounty in record output. Because for farmers, after a flood or anytime, it’s first and foremost about the land.
Always, it’s about the land.