Snoqualmie Valley farmers fight drought with innovation

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Farming in the Snoqualmie Valley

A water-wheel transplanter -- a light John Deere with two large water tanks at its flanks -- moves through dry fields at Local Roots Farm in the Snoqualmie River Valley. The tanks feed into wheels with spikes that make dibbles or small holes while simultaneously moistening the soil.

Three planters sit on seats attached to the tractor. By afternoon they'll plant 3,200 radicchios, a spicy, leafy vegetable with white veined red leaves. Later they'll plant bok choy, cabbage, zucchini, lettuce and parsley.

Twenty minutes east of Seattle, this fertile valley is home to multiple small and organic farmers who feed much of Puget Sound's insatiable appetite for chemical free fruits, vegetables, eggs and poultry. Like every farm in every county across the state, Local Roots is struggling to access enough water this year. Farm owners Siri Erickson-Brown and Jason Salvo, a 30-something couple with advanced degrees, have farmed in this valley for nine years. They've seen 100-year floods wash out fields in consecutive years, and record cold on one Fourth of July. But they've never seen a year like this – record heat combined with soil so dry they've had to exhaust virtually every water resource available.

Usually rainfall and even flooding from the Snoqualmie River water the farm's lowland fields, enriching the soil with silt and nutrients and leaving it moist often into mid-summer. This year, Erickson-Brown and Salvo are just trying to make sure the crops they grow for 30 restaurants, three farmer's markets, and 250 customers who purchase food boxes from June through November will survive and be ready to harvest.

“Right now we're kind of doing this dance between making sure crops we need for next week's boxes are getting that last little push and aren't getting overly stressed,” says Erickson-Brown, “and balancing the need to keep some of our big fall staple crops, like kale and potatoes, alive.” Different crops have different needs, she says, looking out at the farm’s 15 acres while Salvo waters a new batch of carrots in the greenhouse. The first batch didn't make it so he's trying again, learning as he goes exactly how much water crops need in extremely dry soil. Everything is struggling, says Salvo, especially crops with shallow roots, like lettuce, which makes them constantly thirsty.

Unlike many farmers with water woes, however, Local Roots has found a few temporary solutions to help them access more water through the critical growing season. One is a pilot water transfer project to allow property owners in the valley who aren't using their water rights to sell them to those who need them. Long before the drought, Local Roots wished they had more water to help them through the normal July-August dry spells. Aware that many property owners in the valley weren't using their water rights, they teamed up with the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance to come up with a solution. After delicate negotiations, the pilot project began this spring. If a group of property owners agrees, as expected, the pilot will also see owners tax themselves $3 to $4 per acre to pay for administration of the project. Details are still being ironed out. But the pilot would become a rare example of a rational mechanism to navigate the dense thicket that's defined water law in the West since the 19th century.

In the arcane details of Western water law, all states west of the Mississippi are obligated to follow some key tenets. One is a doctrine called “prior appropriation.” What that means in simple terms, says Cynthia Krass, administrator of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance, is “first in time, first in right.” The law was designed to entice homesteaders to come west. As she explains, lawmakers’ thinking went, Work the land, “and we'll make sure the water you need to make the land profitable will be yours, and that no one else can come along and take it.”

The law has another important tenet: “use it, or lose it,” which is playing out in the pilot water transfer project in the Snoqualmie River Valley. Property owners have five years to show they're using water allocated to them or they lose it. Until the pilot water transfer project, there was no legal or ecologically sound way for landowners who weren't using their water rights to sell them on a temporary basis so they didn't lose them.

Under the pilot, Local Roots Farm has permission to withdraw 3 million gallons from the river with an option to purchase another million gallons if there isn't significant rain by mid-September. The farm estimates fields would need about an inch of water a week from mid-June through mid-September under current conditions. With 10 acres planted to date, says Erickson-Brown, they'll need 270,000 gallons a week to get through the season.

In addition, Local Roots is watering crops with drip and overhead irrigation using a combination of well water – they have a 5,000 gallon/day allowance for commercial use – and purchased surface water, which they pump from the Snoqualmie River into a holding pond. From there it goes to fields via buried pipes that feed the drip and sprinkler systems.

If these calculations and the pilot water transfer project itself seem more complicated than Einstein's theory of relativity, farmers, residents and businesses in the valley have long recognized there's always too much or too little water – a scenario that's played out for generations all over the West. The goal of the pilot in this high season of drought is to show that there's water to be shared – at least for now.

The ultimate goal is to create a “watershed improvement district” to address water needs on a systemwide basis, protect water rights and increase access to irrigation. “Right now with the use it or lose it, first in time, first in right, there's no reward to conserve,” says the Valley Preservation Alliance’s Krass. “In fact there's a penalty for conservation of water by a water right holder.” By creating a marketplace for water that may not be used from one to five years or more, she explains, a water-rights holder may decide to install a low flow system and use drip instead of overhead irrigation so they can get money for the water they are saving. “Western water law is a historic legacy system that's not easily changed”, she adds. But with collaborative strategies, all those involved in the project, hope to find answers for seemingly intractable problems.

The acting director of Sno-Valley Tilth, Claire Foster, says changes in the watershed of the Snoqualmie River Valley are imperative for the health of any agricultural production district; especially one that produces the most food of all APDs in King County. Sno-Valley Tilth supports organic and sustainable food production practices throughout the Snoqualmie and Snohomish watersheds. The public benefits in nurturing small farms are enormous, argues Foster, “not the least of which is feeding the demand for sustainably grown food, the increased resource efficiency that comes with moving food short distances, the nutritional quality of the food.” And, of course, providing those willing to work the land an opportunity to do it. At the moment, it's estimated that 70 percent of all farmers in the valley don't have water rights.

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Vegetables from Local Roots farm Credit: Siri Erickson-Brown and Jason Salvo

Local Roots' Erickson-Brown, who serves on the King County Ag Commission, says the valley is also having serious discussion about ways to store water during the rainy season. "People get freaked out by the word dam, but smaller-scale reservoirs would make sense," she says. "We could easily hold back some of that water coming down from the sky [during the rainy season] in a way that makes sense for release over the summer for both fish and farms." If climate predictions play out, the region's record dry heat in the summer may become the norm.

In mid May, the state declared a drought emergency. Stream and river flows are critically low. Last week, the Snoqualmie River was flowing at 317 cubic feet per second. The previous low flow, based on 56 years of record, says Tom Buroker, water systems manager with the state Department of Ecology's King County office, was 622 cubic feet per second. “So we're nearly 50 percent of the previous minimum flow.”

Buroker commends the environmentally conscious farmers involved in the pilot project. Local Roots Farm and the two other farms in the pilot chose to not use all the water that was allocated in the original water right they individually purchased. Instead they applied to transfer some of the water to in-stream flow to benefit the stream. “We like their plan quite a bit,” he says.

Just how long the farms will choose to offer some of the precious resource to ensure minimum in-stream flows remains to be seen. For now, the farms are just grateful that there's been a willingness -- at a cost -- to share water rights in their corner of the Wild West.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.