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Farm report: Dry, with warm weather while water stays scarce


October 19, 2022

A long dry season has been a mixed blessing for local farmers.

Back in June, when the Skagit Valley was so cold and drenched some fields could not even be planted, Dean Swanson thought we would never hit 80 degrees.

“Farmers asked for a warm dry fall to recover from the late start,” he said, “but we forgot to ask for a couple of timely rains.”

Fortunately, copious spring rains gave plants a good start. A deep snowpack kept river levels high all summer, making more water available for irrigating corn, pasture and potatoes. Heat helped.

While Swanson’s early June strawberries were “thimble-sized”, his raspberries were “tremendous” and he’s still picking blackberries, ever-bearing strawberries and green beans.

All crops from Ralph’s Greenhouse are a month late, said owner Ray deVries.

The specialty vegetable grower lost about half his leeks when they were transplanted from the greenhouse last spring. “It was so cold they thought it was winter and 50 percent bolted and went to seed.”

Keeping his workforce has been his biggest challenge. With harvest delayed until August for the first time in deVries’ 34 years of farming, many seasonal staff took other jobs. High school students became a third of his workforce.

The corn Jason Vander Kooy planted in his soggy Bradshaw Road fields in June is finally mature enough to be cut this week.

But the valley is very, very dry. Only two-tenths of an inch of rain have fallen since July 4. “If you kick the dirt near the river,” said Vander Kooy, “there’s still moisture in the ground, but plow the fields farther north and you’re just turning over dust.”

Irrigation pumps can operate when the Skagit River’s instream flow is greater than 10,000 cubic feet per second, the baseline for keeping fisheries healthy, according to the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The river dropped below that in September. On October 14, instream flow was about 6,600 cubic feet per second.

On Aug. 30 Skagit Public Utility wDistrict and the Anacortes Water notified customers to shorten showers, let lawns go dormant, flush the toilet less and fix leaks.

As junior water rights holders, irrigation districts are told, not asked, to stop irrigating.

The pumps at the south end of Kamb Road shut off at the end of August, after cabbage seed starts had been watered and the irrigation season was winding down. They are operated by Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District #15, which covers about 8500 irrigated acres between La Conner and Mount Vernon south of McLean Road.

The Instream Flow Rule has been contentious since it was established in 2001.

The good news is that all voices on this issue, including water users and water rights holders, have been meeting around the same table since 2018. Co-chaired by Rep. Debra Lekanoff and Rep. Keith Wagoner, the Washington state Legislature’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Skagit Water Supply convenes legislators; representatives from business, farming, tribes and environmental advocacy groups; and Skagit, Whatcom and Snohomish counties, cities and PUDs.

Together, Joint Task force members have been digging deeply into how river water is used, what salmon need to thrive and whether instream flow calculations might be more finely calibrated.

Its supply and demand study confirms that agricultural needs are not huge, said Jenna Friebel, executive director of Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium, one of two farming industry representatives.

“Unlike Eastern Washington,” she said, “we have awesome climate, high ground water and really good soils that hold water, so when we irrigate it is a smaller subsection of the entire crop portfolio and irrigation is not the only source of water.”

Only about a third of the crops grown in District 15 need supplemental irrigation. “Tulips don’t need irrigation in July and August,” Friebel said. “Neither do wheat, barley and other cover crops.”

Reliable rain meanws almost no demand for irrigation in May and very little in June. Once the July-August peak is over, demand for water typically tapers off in September.

But not this year.

In 2021, it was so wet and muddy that John Thulen stopped digging potatoes on Oct. 18. This year, he is using well water and the last water in the ditches to dampen soil that is so dusty, it won’t hold potatoes as they ride up the harvester.

“By irrigating, we’re trying to give the potatoes a little grease, a little insulation, so their skins don’t get scratched by the equipment,” he said.

There is also concern that cover crops recently or soon to be sown over tilled potato and corn fields may not germinate.

“One good rain will germinate them, but right now the seeds are just sitting there,” said Vander Kooy. “Hopefully it won’t get cold right away and they’ll have a chance to get some growth.” “One good rain will germinate them, but right now the seeds are just sitting there,” said Vander Kooy. “Hopefully it won’t get cold right away and they’ll have a chance to get some growth.”

While every autumn brings a gap between available water and needed water, Friebel says that gap is narrow. A new instream flow study commissioned by the task force may find a way to close it.

Friebel calls the study “a really big deal”.

“It has taken 20 years to get this far,” she said. “The Joint Task Force wants to make sure the habitat is getting what it needs and that farmers can get the water they need.”

Friebel says how that plays out will be difficult—but a spirit of collaboration among task force members and a solid foundation in science will help make it happen.

“Hopefully it’s win-win for everyone.”

And this Friday, maybe we’ll get some rain.


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