The Dirt Issue 6 – Water, Water… Everywhere?

Posted on June 30, 2016
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Last year at this time the agricultural outlook of the Skagit Valley was threatened by drought. While our 2014-2015 winter precipitation was slightly higher than normal, warm temperatures kept it from being stored as snowpack. By mid-June 2015 the snowpack levels were at just 8% of what they should have been at that time of year, causing a major threat to Skagit Valley agriculture.

Whose water is it, anyway?

The simple answer is…everybody’s. But, even though we all own the water, we are not all entitled to use it.  Predominant throughout the western U.S.—and here in Washington State—is a practice known as “first in time, first in right.” In simple terms, it’s a lot like first come, first served: if a settler acquired land adjacent to a water source and drew from it for his needs—home, farm, business, whatever—his “right” to the beneficial use of that water was senior to anyone who may have come along after him seeking to draw water from that same source.  The latter is referred to as a junior water right.

Who would be in a junior position?

Serving about 15,000 acres of farmland west of Mount Vernon up to La Conner, and west of Conway on Fir Island are Irrigation Improvement District No. 15 and Consolidated Diking Improvement District No. 22. Both these districts have junior water rights.

Besides having junior water rights, these Districts face another challenge: being so close to the shore. The intrusion of salt water into groundwater makes it impossible to use wells.  So, when surface water supply is limited to protect the demands of senior water right holders, a bad situation can become much worse.

The ironic thing is that, according to Western Washington Agricultural Association Executive Director Brandon Roozen, it would have taken one-quarter of one percent of the Skagit River flow to deliver enough water for the junior water rights to be met during last year’s drought;  that’s ¼ of 1% to keep these Districts healthy and productive.

Understandably, senior water right holders are most keen to maintain their rights in full. In addition to private land owners, senior water right holders are municipalities, the PUD, and environmental measures such as the Instream Flow Rule—a minimum rate of flow measured at a specific location within a body of water that is deemed necessary to maintain a healthy fish population. The first responsibility of each of these senior water right holders is to ensure adequate water supplies for every part of their constituency.

What is the answer?

That depends a lot on who you ask.

There’s no question this is an area of contention in Skagit County and doesn’t look to be resolved any time soon. But, what’s worth noting is the willingness and commitment to seek solutions among Skagit Valley farmers.

In an area long known for healthy (if not over-abundant) precipitation, it seems a bit odd to consider irrigation management. But Skagit Valley farmers have been addressing that issue for generations.

A network of ditches set up 100 years or more ago, not only drain excess water from farmland, but hold that water in reserve when it’s needed for irrigation. It’s like hundreds of miles of site-specific mini-reservoirs. In many instances farmers in Districts 15 and 22 can delay the drainage in ditches with check dams, using plywood barriers to keep the water accessible, longer.

Good stewardship of the land and irrigation technology are other key factors in water conservation, considering:

  • Healthy, microbial-balanced soils full of rich organic material are far more able to retain moisture.
  • Mulch helps to keep moisture in place by lessening or even preventing evaporation from the soil.
  • Irrigation methods like drip irrigation and the use of soil and plant sensors help to apply the right amount of water at the right time.

Having just enough water, just when and where it’s needed, is an age-old struggle. It takes infrastructure, best management practices, and a whole lot of cooperation to make what nature gives us available when we need it.

But the Skagit Valley, despite needing supplemental irrigation from time to time, is still one of the most sustainable agricultural valleys remaining in the world.