The peaks of the Olympic Mountains are a familiar sight on the western horizon for people in the Puget Sound region. Well into summer, those mountains are usually snowy white.
But not this year. The snow is gone and rivers are at flow levels not normally seen until late summer. That has farmers, fish managers and community leaders worried about the season ahead.
High on Hurricane Ridge, a tourist hot spot in Olympic National Park, deer munch on fresh grass, surrounded by green mountain peaks. Hikers in T-shirts and shorts sit at picnic tables eating sandwiches and applying sunscreen. Lupines, which are usually spotted in July, bloom nearby.
“Those mountain tops typically would be absolutely covered with snow,” said Barb Maynes, who has worked for the Park Service here for 26 years. “I’m seeing a scene that looks like it would be more typical to see in late July, maybe even August.”
Maynes walks over and points up into a nearby fir to where a form of lichen known as “witch’s hair” dangles in wisps from the high branches. It only grows above the highest snow levels. The lichen on the firs at Hurricane Ridge indicate snow can get more than 15 feet deep here.
“But we never got anything like an average accumulation this year,” Maynes said.
This May, snowpack in the Olympics was lower than it has ever been in more than 65 years of record keeping.
And without that pulse of snow, melting into rivers of the Olympic Peninsula, communities downstream face a long, dry summer.
It’s tempting to lump all the rivers on the Peninsula into one snowpack-fed system, but the truth is no two rivers are alike when it comes to their dependency on the snow in the mountains. Flows on the Elwha River, for example, are more directly dependent on rain than snow. So in a year where overall precipitation is hovering near normal (with much of it coming as rain) flows there are looking OK for now.
But on the Dungeness River, which flows through Sequim on the northeastern part of the Peninsula, the lack of mountain snow this year presents major problems. The Dungeness flows through a sunny, dry sliver of the Olympic Peninsula that gets less rain than almost anywhere else in Western Washington. Right now, the river is flowing at less than half its normal level. That flow will decrease as the dry summer months wear on -- barring extreme rain events.
The city of Sequim, which gets its water from shallow wells near the Dungeness River, has enacted water efficiency measures over the years and is using reclaimed water for much of the city's landscaping needs. The city utility wants to drill its wells deeper to access more groundwater. Some homeowners who rely on private wells may need to do the same.
Local leaders are also putting together a proposal for the construction of a new reservoir on nearby land held by the Washington Department of Natural Resources to capture the precipitation that will fall as rain instead of snow.
Ben Smith and his family keep close to 1,000 cows and calves at Maple View Farm just outside Sequim. Smith and his brother Troy are the fourth generation to farm this property. They’re worried about the dry summer ahead, but Ben Smith describes the farming life as one of “stubborn optimism.”
“It’s completely unknown territory but we know we’re gonna get through it so it’s just a matter of how much pain is going to happen between now and then,” Ben Smith explained while walking past rows of 2-month old calves, awaiting their first romp in the acres of green fields surrounding the milking facility.
Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used in Washington. Water from the Dungeness River irrigates more than 6,000 acres on roughly 60 farms in an area stretching from the foothills of the Olympics to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That irrigation water, combined with the plentiful sun in the Dungeness watershed, has allowed farming here to thrive.
The Smiths farm 600 acres and their water right goes back more than 100 years. They grow barley and hay for their cattle. But they may not be able to do that if the river keeps dropping.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the farmers in the Dungeness watershed came together with the state and local tribes to hammer out an agreement that ensures that there’s enough water in the river for fish, no matter how low the flows get. Irrigators agree to never take more than half the water in the Dungeness River. If flows get too low, irrigation can get shut off altogether.
“We have been criticized by others in the agricultural community for taking too soft a line and for making some compromises in order to have a working relationship with everybody in the valley,” said Gary Smith, Ben’s father. “It’s not all roses but I think it’s been very successful here.”
The state has created programs to ease the pain. Washington Department of Ecology has allocated $200,000 to pay 13 farmers in the Dungeness watershed for not irrigating their fields during the last month of the dry season. The Smiths will receive close to $50,000 through the program and will use the money to offset the cost of buying feed from elsewhere in the region and trucking it in, instead of growing it on their property, which costs half as much.
“It allows farmers to use less water and get enough money to break even,” Gary Smith said of the program. “So the gain is in the river. It’s really not for the farmer, but it’s a good program in these light water years.”
Chris Burns stands in the Dungeness River, the water lapping around his ankles. Burns works for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which has treaty fishing rights to catch salmon in the Dungeness River.
In previous dry years, fisheries managers on the Olympic Peninsula have dug ditches within riverbeds to funnel the water and maintain flows. The ditches are usually not more than a few feet wide and lined with sandbags - not an ideal conduit for more than a million salmon.
Fisheries managers on the Dungeness are considering expanding the pink salmon fishing season to alleviate the pressure on the shrinking river.
“Most of the Olympic Range rivers could see low enough flows that it could be impassable for salmon to swim upstream later on,” said Mike Gallagher, a water resource manager for the Department of Ecology.
“How worried am I? I’ll put it this way: I’ve lived in Western Washington my entire life,” Gallagher said. “This is uncharted territory for a lot of us so we’ll just have to see what comes. It could be very dire conditions.”