The historic low water level in the Skagit River threatens to damage the valley’s farms this summer.
With stream flows the lowest they’ve ever been in the 74 years records have been kept, the state authorized emergency water to be transferred from a utility to irrigate the most at-risk crops on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Skagit County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a meeting Monday to hear from farmers concerned about their irrigation water supply. Monday’s meeting is 11:30 a.m. at the commissioners chambers in Mount Vernon.
“We’re just having a public session, hoping to get farmers in to talk about their experiences,” said Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen. He said the meeting will also deal with how this situation occurred.
The state Department of Ecology authorized Skagit Public Utility District to transfer roughly 13 million gallons of water over a 24-hour window, which began at 5 a.m. on Tuesday, to help save crops.
The release of water from a utility for agriculture is a new and relatively rare occurrence on the western side of the Cascades, said Tom Buroker, director for Water Resources at the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Northwest Regional Office.
“This is maybe the worst drought on record,” said Buroker. “This will help in the near term.”
According to the United States Geological Survey, the mid-June average flow in the Skagit River is 24,700 cubic feet per second. On Tuesday, the Skagit flow rate was 9,490 – far lower than the record minimum of 11,100 set in 2005.
The low water level is mostly attributed to snowpack, which is at its record lowest in the Cascades at nearly one-third of sights measured, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the mountains received normal amounts of precipitation, it mostly fell as rain, leaving little water stored as snow for summer and autumn flows.
The low level of water in the river compounds an already significant problem for farmers, who have been searching for new sources of water to support crops on Fir Island and in the lower part of the Skagit Valley.
Previously, farmers had been granted permits from the Department of Ecology to obtain water in Skagit Drainage and Irrigation Districts 22 and 15, which are on Fir Island and the La Conner Flats. However, the permits are no good when flow rates are this low.
The 24-hour transfer from the PUD, which comes from the Skagit River and Gilligan’s Creek, is the first of its kind, and was agreed to last Thursday, said district general manager Robert Powell.
While the PUD has never made this kind of transfer before, the agency has authority to reserve more water than it actually needs under a 1996 agreement guaranteeing urban utilities enough water rights to budget for future increases in water demand.
Brandon Roozen, director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, was hesitant to describe the situation as dire and noted that water flow could depend on a number of factors, including dam output. “It can be a daily change,” he said.
However, if the shortage continues, he warned of fore-seeable consequences. “If we don’t start getting water soon, we could have losses.”
County Commissioner Wesen said, “People don’t understand how much money is invested in those crops.”
Unless a solution is forthcoming for farmers, the losses could be significant.