By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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“The Sequim prairie down there, right where the city sets now, it was about as dry as a desert without irrigation water,” said Fred Grant of the Agnew Irrigation District.
The water system started by 19th-century farmers made growth possible.
Now, that growth has cramped water supplies and changed the way farmers water crops.
“We're totally dependent on water to have a profitable farming operation,” said Gary Smith, a longtime farmer whose family's Maple View Farms is one of two producing dairies left in the valley.
Past president of the Dungeness Valley Agricultural Water Users Association and the Sequim Prairie Tri-Irrigation Co., Smith was a key player in conserving water by irrigators as the state Department of Ecology imposed the Dungeness Water Rule on the river's watershed in 2013.
His efforts were one reason he was named Sequim's 2013 Citizen of the Year, and his work representing irrigators in water issues for 35 years was cited in the selection of him and his wife, Jan, to ride in Saturday's Grand Parade as the 2014 Sequim Irrigation Festival Grand Marshals.
Dungeness Valley irrigation began in 1895, when the Sequim Prairie Ditch Co. formed under the leadership of D.R. “Crazy” Callen to build a ditch that brought water uphill from the river to the prairie.
With those dry fields now irrigated, the Dungeness Valley became one of the state's largest dairy centers, with as many as 700 farms in the valley in the 1950s.
“If it wasn't for the ditches, we wouldn't have much of a farm here,” said Jim White, who oversees operations for the Clallam Irrigation Co. and the Cline Irrigation District.
As the valley's reputation as a retirement haven grew in the later part of the 20th century, many of those farms were subdivided for housing.
When Sequim was founded, it had a population of 300. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the city had a population of 6,606, with another 20,000 people living in the valley.
“As we put more houses on this place, it cuts up the farm land and makes it a little tougher for us,” Smith said.
“Those houses also need water.”
The Dungeness River's flow began to decrease as more wells were drilled to supply water to those houses.
In January 2013, the area that prospered in large part because of its irrigation system was put under the terms of the Dungeness Water Rule, which covers much of rural eastern Clallam County.
Established by the state Department of Ecology, the water rule was put in place with the goal of increasing the river's flow to ensure it would have enough water to support both fish and people.
The Dungeness River is home to four fish species under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Those who drill new wells or put existing wells to new uses pay mitigation fees to get the water from a water bank managed by the nonprofit Washington Water Trust, based in Seattle.
The seven private and public irrigation companies that make up the Dungeness River Agricultural Water Users Association were instrumental in setting up that water bank.
“They made it work, to the extent that it is working,” said Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire.
Water rule questions
The water rule has had a contentious reaction in the valley, as it has limited the water available to new residents.
“After all the hard work the irrigators and everybody have done to reduce the amount of water we're using, we still have this water rule,” said real estate broker Marguerite Glover.
Glover has been active in development of the water rule, as she said it sets unfair limits on some new water users while allowing others to continue to use as before.
In some areas of the water rule area, property owners cannot use water outside, for irrigating yards or hobby farms.
“It's just so sad to think that somebody can have a beautiful garden, but the person next door can't water,” she said.
The Olympic Resource Protection Council, a building-industry-backed group, is planning to file suit against Ecology to have the rule reconsidered.
McEntire said county and state officials are working to change that provision of the water rule.
Water in the bank
The irrigators transferred 175 acre-feet of water rights to the water trust for $350,000 to establish the water bank.
New users pay to access some of that water, although most of it will be used to recharge groundwater supplies.
“This whole community needs water,” Grant said.
“And so we agreed it was the right thing to do to set up the water bank.”
In 1924, the irrigators were granted the right by a court to pull 516 cubic feet per second, or cfs, of water from the river, but they reduced water use as Dungeness Bay became more polluted and Puget Sound chinook were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.
In 1998, the irrigators and Ecology agreed to a 156 cfs water right.
Last year's sale reduced that to 93.5 cfs and left the irrigators with an additional 15 cubic feet per second in a reserve.
The irrigators also agreed not to withdraw water if the river's flow drops below 60 cfs.
Mike Gallagher, water resources manager for Ecology, said a flow of 105 cfs is the river's target flow for summer months.
The minimum flow set under the rule is 180 cfs. The target is a mark to gauge improvement.
Smith said the irrigators didn't use much of the water to which they had rights.
“We gave up a great deal of paper water rights,” he said.
“We weren't actually using all that water and haven't been for some time.”
Pipes help conservation
Much of the reduction in irrigation water came through replacement of open irrigation ditches with underground pipe.
“Piping changed things a lot,” White said.
By last year, irrigators had replaced some 100 miles of ditch with pipes, which reduced water drawn from the river and increased its flow by 20 cfs, according to Joe Holtrop, executive director of the Clallam Conservation District.
Much of the pipe installation was funded by nearly $12 million of grants secured through the conservation district.
In the early years of Dungeness Valley agriculture, fields were primarily irrigated by flooding, which meant farmers took water from the ditches and backed it up to cover their fields.
That practice stopped in the 1950s, as sprinkler systems became more affordable and practical.
“Unless you had real level ground, I don't know that flood irrigation could ever work worth a hoot,” Grant said.
Changing farm practices
Farms in the valley also instituted new farming practices that have led to less need for water.
Such practices include reduced-pressure sprinkler systems and greater use of drip irrigation systems.
“Agriculture's changing really fast in general. And of course, the farmers in Sequim have been trying to keep up with that,” said Smith, who remembers flood-irrigating Carlsborg fields in his youth.
“We don't need to take out as much water today as we did 10 years ago in order to do the same job for the crop,” he added as he tilled a field that will be planted with corn next week.
“Corn needs a tremendous amount of water,” Smith said.
Piping the ditches, though, also lowered the water table, which meant some well users had to drill deeper to get water.
“That was an unintended consequence of the irrigation system over its first hundred years,” Holtrop said.
“The leaking ditches did raise the water table.”
Smith said as much as 16 inches of water infiltrated the ground from the ditches every year.
Replacing that water is one of the main goals of the water bank, Holtrop said.
The idea is that more water in aquifers will allow those who pull water from wells to do so without draining the river when its flow is reduced in dry summer months.
“The water rights were for irrigation, not to take water from the river and put it in the ground,” Holtrop said.
“Now we're getting back to how things were naturally.”
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.