Water: Timing is Everything
Water is essential to all living things, and Lynden gets plenty of it, 40-50 inches of rain per year. The timing of the water — too much in the spring and not enough in the summer — is bringing conservationists and farmers together to solve the problem.
“The issue becomes in the summer months we’re getting less rainfall, and there’s much more demand for the water with crop irrigation, people are outside, more active and using more water, but also, it’s a critical time for salmon,” explained Greg Ebe, a seed potato farmer in Whatcom County. “Salmon are returning to spawn, so there needs to be adequate flow in our streams also for salmon and other wildlife.” The timing of water use is critical in northwest Washington. At times, there is too much water on the landscape and flooding occurs. At other times, such as in the summer, there isn’t enough rainfall, and farmers must irrigate their crops. Many farmers use overhead sprinklers.
Ebe made the transition from overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation a couple of years ago to improve his water management system. “We’re probably watering less now than with some of our overhead methods and maintaining optimum moisture rather than irrigating and having it be too wet and then too dry,” Ebe told Washington Grown co-host Tomás Guzmán.
Like Ebe, other area farmers have used resources from their local conservation districts to improve their water use for their farms and the salmon.
“Over the last five years, we’ve increased the number of farmers that are using our programs and services by twentyfold,” said Aneka Sweeney, the education and outreach coordinator for Whatcom Conservation District. “We used to have just a handful of farmers come in, and now we have hundreds a year that are seeing us as a resource, seeing us as a trusted source of information, and recognizing that the research that we do and the farm planning that we do is vital.”
“A lot’s being done on salmon restoration. We’re planting buffers and developing riparian zones, converting from surface water, which has a direct impact to our streams, to groundwater, moving to more efficient methods of irrigation,” said Ebe. But some challenges prevent others from making the move from overhead to drip irrigation. “Yes. It’s pretty labor-intensive getting it all set up. It is much more expensive cost per acre, but we hope to recover that in yield and quality,” Ebe said.
Another example of how farmers and conservation districts are working together is by applying new technology to old floodgates. “They were exactly that. They were to keep floods out,” explained Sweeney. “They were primarily closed and prevented any fish passage back and forth. Now, with this new technology, they’re mostly open, and then there’s a float system on it that triggers them to close so that if a flood were to come, it would be protecting that upstream habitat. That is brilliant technology that is going to be a huge change in the Nooksack River ecosystem.”
“I fully believe that agriculture is the most compatible land use for salmon recovery,” said Ebe.
Our farmlands are a vital part of salmon habitat restoration. As we look to the future, the preservation of large tracks of undeveloped land along our critical creeks, like agriculture, is going to be imperative to the success of our efforts,” said Sweeney.