Parched Olympic Peninsula Community Eyes New Reservoir

Sep 21, 2015

As we get into the late summer, water supplies in much of the Northwest continue to drop.

The snow that usually melts and keeps streams and lakes full late in the season never really showed up this year.

That’s putting stress on farmers and endangered fish.

In part 1 of our EarthFix series on drought, Ashley Ahearn headed out to the Olympic Peninsula to see how people are responding.

Sequim is one of the driest parts of Western Washington. At a community meeting about drought earlier this summer, there were a lot of worried, weathered faces in the audience.

As the drought wears on, water levels in the Dungeness River on the Olympic Peninsula are setting daily records, heightening interest in a new water storage project.
Credit Ashley Ahearn

The farmers in this community get their water from the nearby Dungeness River. It’s fed - throughout the summer - by snow that melts out of the Olympic Mountains. But this year, almost all the precipitation came as rain. And now, the river is dangerously low.

That has some people pushing for better ways to store that rainwater for use during drier parts of the year.

When the moderator asked the audience what they were most eager to hear about, one woman raised her hand immediately:

Woman: "My question is what are the plans for reservoirs for future drought situations?"

People in the audience around her nodded their heads in agreement.

And there are some who are already working on making the idea of a reservoir reality.

Cronin: "We are somewhere near the middle of the parcel and the reservoir would be some kind of circular configuration in here…."

Amanda Cronin is with the Washington Water Trust. The nonprofit works to help communities better manage water resources. We’re walking through some state timber land near the river just south of Sequim that could one day be underwater.

But just to be clear - this isn’t a proposal to dam the Dungeness River or stop its natural flow.

Amanda Cronin: The concept is really to divert a small amount of water in the spring and winter when water is plentiful in the river and store it for times of shortage during the late season.

The reservoir wouldn’t be very big - 88 acres, max. That’s about ⅓ the size of Greenlake in Seattle.

But it could store enough water to supply local farmers with up to 45 extra days of water. It would help them squeak through the last dry part of the summer growing season.

And that would be good news for salmon, too.

If farmers could get water from the reservoir, instead of the Dungeness River - which is at dangerously low levels right now - there would be more water left in the river for salmon that are starting to come upstream to spawn.

The project still needs to go through an environmental review process, but the state seems open to ideas like this, in these dry times. Chase Gallagher is a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Ecology.

Gallagher: "A reservoir is one of the tools that are gonna be in the toolbox and as snowpack becomes less dependable we’re going to need to look at different opportunities that manage both the supply side and the demand side of water."

Lots of people ride horses, hike and walk dogs around this piece of state timberland where the Sequim reservoir could be built.

Jeff Becker has just finished a trail ride with her horse…

Becker: This is Vinny. He’s interested in eating, and eating only.

Becker has lived here for 15 years and says it’s been a long, dry summer.

Becker: “I can see the point of maybe making a reservoir if it will help the situation with the water. It’s probably gonna get drier in the future years, not wetter, so a reservoir may be a good idea.”

People would still be able to hike, bike and horseback ride here if the reservoir’s built.

The project is in the early planning phase and could take several years to complete.

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