Conservation district holds 50th birthday party

SEQUIM — Farmers and salmon are hanging on in the valley fed by the Dungeness River, thanks in large part to the efforts of an underground organization.

That group is the Clallam Conservation District, and it celebrated its 50th anniversary Wednesday with a two-hour tour of its water-saving projects across the Dungeness Valley.

Dessert came after, in a sheet cake bearing frosted green trees and the message “Helping Landowners Put Conservation on the Ground Since 1959.”

Much of the conservation, in fact, takes place below ground.

It happens in new irrigation pipes that carry Dungeness River water to farms such as Maple View, the 750-acre spread where the Smith family and crew milk 398 cows daily.

The valley has long been known for its open irrigation ditches, the troughs that inspired the first Sequim Irrigation Festival 120 years ago.

But as the festival slogan says, “water is wealth,” so miles of ditches were “tightlined,” or piped and covered.

The Clallam Conservation District, with Joe Holtrop as manager, cooperated with seven local irrigation districts to install nearly 30 miles of irrigation pipes across the Dungeness watershed.

Those projects are resulting in the savings of nearly 4,000 acre feet of water each year, Holtrop said.

Wednesday’s tour started at the Maple View Farm northeast of Sequim, where Gary Smith — whose family started farming here in 1933 — are known as leaders in best practices.

Conservation projects

They have planted trees to protect the soil, and use manure lagoons to store manure for fertilizing crop fields during the growing season, Holtrop noted.

The nearby Port Williams reservoir, built in 2005 for $1.2 million, is another conservation project that now provides water for surrounding lavender and other products.

But in the Golden Sands neighborhood around Three Crabs Road, Holtrop said water pollution is still a difficult issue. Fecal coliform bacteria levels are high, and home septic systems are considered a major contributor.

On nearby farmland, however, fecal coliform contamination is being reduced through the piping and covering of irrigation ditches.

At the Delta Farm in Dungeness, for example, piping conserves water while covering the ditches keeps “tailwater” — which can contain traces of livestock manure and other contaminants — out of the runoff that goes into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Wednesday’s tour culminated in a visit to the Lazy J Tree Farm, where owner Steve Johnson has created a compost production business to go with his Christmas trees and organic fruit orchards.

Compost, yard waste and other plant matter are a relatively new business for Johnson, 55, who took over the farm at 16 after his father, George Johnson, died.

New life on farm

Compost, piping and a stormwater storage tank have given the farm new life.

Steve Johnson wanted to pipe and cover his irrigation ditches “to gain ground,” he said. And he gained about 2 acres, for growing more trees, apples, pears and Ozette potatoes.

And by laying several inches of compost down on his fields, he locks in moisture and fertilizes those crops.

Meantime, the Agnew farm doesn’t get a lot of rainfall.

The farm received about 19 inches in 2008, Johnson said, but he remembers at least one year with only 11 inches of precipitation.

After some 40 years of growing, he knows the Dungeness Valley drought cycle, and figures the region is due for another long, dry spell.

So the composting is like insurance — and it’s another growing concern.

“I was squeaking by on apples and Christmas trees,” Johnson said. “Composting is actually something . . . there’s money in,” as other farmers and gardeners discover its salutary effect on crops.

The Lazy J operation also includes two water storage containers: a pond that holds irrigation water piped from the Dungeness River some 20 miles away, and a stormwater tank. Johnson uses it all on his trees and fields.

At the same time, he hopes his spreading of plant matter and compost will shrink his need to water.

“I would really like to go through a season,” he said, “without any irrigation at all.”

District efforts

The Clallam Conservation District, as it moves into its second half-century, continues its efforts to teach residents of Clallam County, farmers or not, how they can save water while beautifying their surroundings.

The district organizes annual plant sales, through which it has sold more than 160,000 native trees and shrubs since 1990, Holtrop said.

Holtrop and his staff also give natural landscaping workshops, in hopes of showing homeowners how to turn their thirsty, labor-intensive lawns into native-plant gardens that need far less water and work.

The workshops have been “a huge success, reaching out to nearly 2,000 homeowners over the past 19 years,” Holtrop said.

The conservation district also conducts workshops for small-scale livestock farmers, with more than 1,000 participating since 1990.

The challenges on the Dungeness Valley’s horizon, Holtrop added, include providing irrigation for local farmers while keeping enough water in the streams for salmon, that indicator of environmental health, to recover and thrive.

For information about Clallam Conservation District programs, phone 360-452-1912 or visit clallam.scc.wa.gov.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladaily news.com.

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