With a combination of conservation efforts, Sequim’s irrigators have in recent years reduced the amount of water they need to pull from the Dungeness River. To reflect the pared demand — and perhaps to make a few bucks — they will soon once again voluntarily reduce their water rights.
Sequim’s irrigators started pulling water from the river more than 117 years ago. Way back when — in 1924, to be specific — a Washington state court gave Sequim’s irrigation companies the right to pull 516 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the Dungeness River.
That’s a lot of water — more than 1 million gallons every five minutes. It’s also more than the natural flow of the river much of the year.
It’s also much more than they ever needed.
“We never used that much,” said Gary Smith, who volunteers his time and talents to the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Agricultural Water Users Association, the umbrella organization that serves all seven of the current irrigation companies.
A 1998 assessment of water use by irrigators confirmed that fact, and through a memorandum of understanding with the Washington Department of Ecology, the water users soon thereafter agreed to reduce their rights to just 156 cfs.
Specifically, said Smith, the irrigators agreed to never pull more than 156 cfs out of the river while also agreeing they would never take out more than 50 percent of the river’s flow, regardless of the flow.
Now they’re prepared once again to reduce their rights, Smith said, because of their successful conservation efforts. By enclosing much of the formerly open-air ditches in pipes and through more efficient watering techniques, the irrigators now are using less water than ever before.
He added that to some degree the water savings are simply the result of the farmers growing more conscious of the importance of proper water use. “In the old days, we thought we had enough. You just didn’t worry about it.”
Smith said to date the irrigators haven’t been paid for the water rights they’ve given up, though they have received a number of grants to do the conservation work, including much of the piping work. He said individual farmers also have spent significant sums to reduce their water use.
The irrigators are now in the last stages of rewriting their certificates to leave them with just 93.5 cfs of water rights. Smith noted that’s not how much they intend to regularly draw out of the river; instead it’s the maximum that could be drawn at any one time.
A fraction of that will be pulled from the river over the course of a year, he said.
Tom Loranger, deputy program manager with the Department of Ecology, is handling the chores for the state. He said the irrigators “view (conservation) as in their interest and in the interest of the community.” He said reducing their rights also may help insulate the irrigators from possible litigation arising from the federal Endangered Species Act.
Loranger said his agency will issue “superseding certificates” for the water, with the new amounts reflecting “pretty much what they’re doing now.”
The old rules remain: Loranger said under no circumstances could the irrigators pull out more than 50 percent of the river’s flow.
It’s a big drop, but the irrigators have provided themselves with some leeway.
Of the amount they’re giving up, the irrigators will retain approximately 15 cfs “in trust,” Smith said. That means, “If we have years when we need it, we can pull it out of the trust.”
Loranger said the irrigators’ reduced water rights are largely unrelated to the new Dungeness Water Management Rule, which is expected to be proposed May 9.
Smith says it’s possible the irrigators will make a few dollars because of the rule. Among other items, the new rule likely will require those building in the affected area to pay to “mitigate” for the water they withdraw from a new well. They will have to pay more for water for use outside the home.
The rule will require anyone making a “new use” of an existing water supply to mitigate its use.
That’s where the irrigators’ 15 cfs of trust water may come into play.
Smith anticipates the irrigators may sell as much as 5 cfs to those who need these “mitigation credits,” with the transactions to be handled by the Washington Water Trust, the “water bank” that is being established by Clallam County. The bank will work to ensure enough mitigation water remains to provide for future development within the area that would be subject to the new rules.
The rule covers much of eastern Clallam County.
To date, it appears the irrigators’ water will serve as the primary source for those needing to purchase mitigation water.
Smith said he knows the water has value, but he doesn’t know how much. He said the Water Trust is investigating similar arrangements in Washington to help establish the water’s value.
Any revenues likely would be used to support the Water Users Group. “We would diminish the assessments” users now pay, Smith said, and perhaps hire someone to handle the office work that’s now picked up by volunteers.
“Our basic responsibility is to maintain enough water” for the irrigators, he said.
Some people think the new rule may provide a bonanza for the irrigators.
“Yes, we have a good bit of water to sell,” Smith said, but he added that those in the community need to realize the hundreds of agricultural water users who stand to benefit also are members of the community — and they play a vital role in the community’s financial health.
“And we have a significant investment in this system,” he added.
Smith noted that other private entities also can engage in conservation efforts to “create mitigation water” which then could be sold.
Smith said the new certifications are virtually complete, with all the important agreements in place.
Because the agreement is with Ecology, the new arrangement will require public notice, which should take place within the next month or two.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.