The Dirt Issue 30 – Dikes & Drainage

Posted on August 29, 2018
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Any drive along Skagit Valley farmland features the ubiquitous roadside ditch, but did you know that it’s part of a vast interconnected system that does more than anything else to make the Skagit Valley the agricultural wonder it is?
Where We Farm Is Where the World Farms
The richest, most fertile farmland in the world is the result of alluvial deposits, a gradual shedding of sediment loads from upper elevations to the level landscape typified by river deltas like those of the Skagit and Samish Rivers. The sediments bring a mix of sand, silt, clay, organic matter and nutrients that cannot be duplicated. What brings them to the deltas is water and time.
While powerless to manipulate time, humanity has had some success in handling water. The Skagit Valley is a case in point. Only by draining the land and protecting it from saltwater intrusion is the full potential of our fertile soil realized.
A Historical Legacy
In many regions of the world there exists evidence of dike embankments and canals from millennia back in time. Thought to first be employed in Mesopotamia some 5,000 or more years ago, waterworks of ancient origin emerged also in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. It is the European know-how, however, that was brought by early settlers to the Skagit Valley.
According to,  the first dike was built in treeless flats in the LaConner area by Michael Sullivan and Samuel Calhoun in 1863. With claims near each other, these strangers soon realized they were, in fact, neighbors with a common vision. They joined forces and began to dike and drain Sullivan’s 40 acres. “They used shovels and wheelbarrows as there were no oxen or horses. They worked at low tide when water wasn’t pushing up the slough. The mud of the marsh was hard to handle but standard practice was to make a dike eight feet wide at the base and four feet high. Behind it a trench and sluice boxes under the levee helped to drain water from the fields. When they were done, they worked on diking Calhoun’s claim.”
Derided at first, the naysayers soon had to change their tune when Sullivan exported the first crop of oats from the Skagit Valley in 1868. In 1870, he brought in a crop of barley that sold for $1600 right off his dock on the slough. By 1873, just ten years after the first dike was constructed, everyone was diking and few acres on the flat were left unclaimed.
Getting Organized
Initially it was each farmer for himself, but in time it became clear that organizing Dike Districts was a better way to go. By the 1890s several were already established. The districts represented farmers and landowners within a specific area and sought to coordinate efforts to protect that area. The only problem was there was no consensus about the method of building the dikes or their ideal configuration. Mother Nature provided the means to judge what did and did not work. Every major storm or flood imparted a lesson in how and where to situate an effective dike.
By the turn of the century the lower Skagit and Samish River delta areas had an extensive network of drainage ditches, dikes, levees and tide gates to protect agricultural land from flooding and tidal inundation. By the 1960s the Valley’s complete flood protection and drainage infrastructure was in place, essentially as it exists today.
The lower Skagit River floodplain is surrounded by approximately 147 miles of levees and dikes, crisscrossed by nearly 380 miles of drainage ditches and served by approximately 130 tide and flood gates. In many areas the drainage system is shallow and drains only the top few feet of land. The drainage system works to move water off the land in the late fall, winter and early spring months. In the later spring through early fall the drainage system serves as a local reservoir providing some part of the irrigation needed when rain recedes.
Skagit County Special Purpose Districts
While their names vary, the Skagit County special purpose districts that deal with dikes, drainage and irrigation issues both provide and maintain the infrastructure that protects farmland, roadways and homes. In Skagit County, the first diking benefit districts were established by the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1888. From that time there have been occasional revisions to statutes affecting their operation but, in the simplest terms, these districts have themselves paid for, built and maintained the system that provides drainage, flood control and essential irrigation.
In Skagit County the districts not only deal with their own specific needs, but also work with other districts and concerned entities to preserve the integrity of the entire system. Helping many of them to do this is Western Washington Agricultural Association. Since its inception in 1944, WWAA has been committed to agriculture’s protection and advancement. How to achieve that has changed as local agriculture has changed. Among many other functions, WWAA serves as the primary contact between county, state, and federal government and agencies on the one hand, and the local districts it represents on the other. When maintenance needs require permits and authorization to implement, WWAA negotiates the web of regulations and interests.
Benefits Beyond Farmland Protection
Skagit County agriculture is vital and strong because of the care taken from the earliest days of European settlement to maximize its many advantages. It has yielded an abundant diversity of food and fiber, livelihoods supporting families over generations, protection of habitat and the watershed far exceeding other Puget Sound counties, and an open space co-existence with nature that supports wildlife conservation, human recreation, and yes, farming.
And it all started with a dike . . .