Drought Watch: Saving crops in Skagit County

Water from utility district staves off problems for nation’s seed crop

Skagit Valley farmers who produce much of our nation’s vegetable seed supply got a needed shot in the arm thanks to their local public utility district. But the fix will fade in just days as western Washington’s unusually warm and dry weather continues to affect the region’s growers. 

Irrigation ditch in bottom of photo, hose stretches to various machines along a large crop field.

Water from an irrigation ditch is pumped to a field's sprinklers.

The heat and lack of precipitation as we enter summer is compounding the unprecedented lack of snowpack in the Cascade and Olympic mountains that prompted last month’s statewide drought declaration.
For 24 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, two irrigation districts serving farms that grow about 5,000 acres of irrigated crops switched on pumps to receive nearly 13 million gallons of water from the Skagit Public Utility District (PUD). Ecology authorized the temporary transfer of the PUD’s water rights downstream to Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District No. 15 and Consolidated Diking Improvement District No. 22.

Too little rainwater and no snow to speak of

Both irrigation districts collect rainwater runoff in ditches and then provide this water to farmers. In a normal year, the runoff water lasts through June. But, May’s northern Puget Sound rainfall stood at just 39 percent of normal. Daily high temperatures last week averaged six to eight degrees above normal. By last week, the ditches were nearly empty.
A bar graph showing Skagit County's rain levels from 1980 to 2015.

Skagit County lacked rainfall most of this spring.

Meanwhile, the Skagit River is running at 40 percent of its normal flow this week. The northern Cascade snowpack – which was 9 percent of normal on June 1 – has melted. The river’s flow this week is about 9,300 cubic feet per second. Flows below 12,000 cubic feet per second – a level set by state rule to protect fish runs – trigger water cutoffs for holders of junior water rights.

Juniors and seniors

Districts 15 and 22 hold such junior rights, so they aren’t allowed to draw from the Skagit River, which would normally be their fallback option. The PUD, which has a more senior water right and can still draw from the river, temporarily reduced the amount it can take to allow the districts to run their pumps for 24 hours, starting at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
Even before that, Ecology had started work with the districts on the next phase – to find a long term solution – and do so in a way that protects fish runs by not further lowering the river.

Seeds for the world

With much of the acreage irrigated by districts 15 and 22 planted in seed crops, Ecology’s success will echo on next year’s dinner plates nationwide. The primary crops now at risk in the two districts include spinach, cabbage and beets, which are grown for seed.

A map showing Districts 15 and 22 in Washington State, on the far west side of the state.

Districts 15 and 22 are west of Mount Vernon.

The Skagit Valley is a 90,000-acre farming area that provides an unusually large share of the U.S. farm seed supply. This includes 95 percent of table beets and 75 percent of spinach and cabbage. Worldwide, the valley produces 8 percent of the spinach seed supply and 25 percent of cabbage and beet seed.
Skagit County also supplies the nation and world with seed for arugula, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, coriander, mustard, parsley, parsnip, rutabaga, Swiss chard, and turnip.
The valley’s strategic role as a seed supplier adds a far-reaching dimension to Ecology’s efforts to relieve the hardships of Washington’s drought.