Low Skagit River flows and rules about water use have created challenges this summer for area farmers who rely on the river to irrigate their crops.
For about half the days in July, the river’s flow was below 10,000 cubic feet per second, according to data from a U.S. Geological Survey gauge in Mount Vernon.
When that minimum wasn’t met, irrigation districts, which lack uninterruptible water access, had to shut off their water pumps, leaving some farms without water.
The instream flow rule mandates a minimum flow to protect salmon and fish habitat.
Mount Vernon-area dairy farmer Jason Vander Kooy said the pump operated by Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District No. 15 on the north fork of the Skagit River serves about a dozen farms and 5,000 acres.
“The last three weeks, this is only day three we’ve been able to pump,” he said on July 17.
Irrigation systems consist of a pump, ditches in fields that transport the water, and small dams that control the flow. Farms farther from the river face more challenges because it takes at least a day to fill up the ditches, Vander Kooy said.
Parts of Skagit County are in a moderate and severe drought this summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
In 2015, a drought caused millions of dollars in losses for county farmers. Vander Kooy said he thinks farmers have fared better this year because dry weather allowed them to plant crops on time, allowing plants to develop deeper roots to draw up water.
He said it’s hard to compare from year to year, though, because of factors such as timing and amount of rain. When water is released from dams to boost river flow, that helps farmers, too.
“Every year has its challenges,” he said.
Vander Kooy grows corn, grass and alfalfa for his cows, and crops such as potatoes, which can only be grown every three to four years.
Lack of water not only affects the growth of crops, but makes them more susceptible to weeds and disease, thereby affecting crop yield.
Farmers want a solution to the issue of water that will help keep farming viable in Skagit County, he said.
Agricultural water needs are being considered by a joint legislative task force, though solutions may be years away.
The task force formed in 2018 to recommend and develop studies relating to water needs and instream flows in the Skagit River watershed. In 2019, the work expanded to the lower Skagit River watershed.
The Legislature approved $2.5 million for the work.
At a task force meeting July 19 in Mount Vernon, Gary Jones of the Western Washington Agricultural Association and Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium Director Jenna Friebel requested a peer review from the Washington State Academy of Sciences of a study that was used to inform the instream flow rule.
Specifically, the request was to focus on the 1999 Skagit River Estuary Study. An estuary is where fresh and saltwater mix.
Friebel said the goal is to find a year-round water supply for irrigation districts, whose water rights are interruptible when minimum river flows are not met, she said. The lower watershed is important because it supports the heart of agriculture in Skagit County, she said.
Task force co-chair and state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, suggested the task force consider a broader approach — a comprehensive study of water supply and demand in Skagit County.
The study might look at water needed for farmers, domestic wells, salmon protection and fisheries, and could be used to later inform management of water, she said.
The next steps are to develop a scope of work for the studies. The task force is scheduled to meet later this year.