The Water Protectors: How Dairy Farmers and a Local Tribe Work Toward Conservation Together

For western Washington, Sequim, has little rain accumulation, only about 17 inches of water each year, but the Dungeness River provides many locals their livelihood year round. From the local Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s fishing practices to local farmers’ needs for reliable irrigation to grow crops, the whole community works together to conserve one of their most precious resources—water.

Ben and Troy Smith are 4th generation dairy farmers on Maple View Farm in Sequim. In 1933 their great- grandfather-in-law started their farm in Clallam County because of its mild climate which allows dairy cows to thrive. Today, the Smiths milk about 400 dairy cows and grow 700 acres of corn, grass, barley, and a few acres of vegetable seed. The Smith boys owe their farm’s success to their father Gary, who was instrumental in initiating a partnership between locals to better manage water rights to the Dungeness River in the late 90’s. As a proactive approach, Gary and other irrigators sat down with other groups to discuss solutions to protect access to water.

“That’s when we created the Sequim Dungeness Water Users Association, a group made up of the seven irrigation companies and districts that utilize the Dungeness River for irrigation water,” Gary stated.

Soon after, the Water Users Association initiated a meeting with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and Department of Ecology to discuss ways they could all work together to monitor and conserve water. After several meetings, the groundwork was laid, and in 1998 the first Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the three groups. The MOU outlined the irrigators’ specific water rights, and conservation goals going forward.  

“We saw this as a win-win for everybody,” stated Ben. “This was a great opportunity for everyone to share their concerns and put it all out on the table. We had two goals—protect our current water rights and agree upon responsible water management through open-minded discussions.”

This was also when the group had agreed to start more aggressive water conservation practices, such as piping irrigation ditches. With the help of the Clallam Conservation District, the irrigators have piped more than 62 miles of irrigation ditches over the past 17 years, reducing their diversions of Dungeness River water by almost half. The piping of ditches has proven to be the most effective way to improve the efficiency of the irrigation system, eliminating infiltration and evaporation losses that sometimes exceeded actual irrigation needs.

Joe Holtrop, Executive Director of the Clallam Conservation District, is proud to play a role in benefiting this partnership.

“Water conservation and increasing flows in the Dungeness River and other streams has long been a high priority for Clallam Conservation District,” explained Holtrop. “Our talent for securing and managing grant funds puts us in an important position to help the irrigators implement some big projects that have paid dividends for the Dungeness River habitat.”

One example of how this partnership has worked so well is during the drought of 2015. The area depends on snow for river flow and that year the snowpack had been significantly low. The Tribe, irrigators, and Department of Ecology knew it was going to be a tough season but decided to all work together to reduce water use as much as possible.

Ben gives credit to the community, the Tribe, and irrigators for working together with the common goal of getting through the drought with the least amount of negative impact on the river's health.

“The whole community came together to save water,” Ben stated. “The tribe arranged rocks in the river to help water flow and save fish. The Department of Ecology helped by providing funds to farmers who didn’t irrigate the last 30 days of the season to compensate for any crops lost. It was so great to see everyone come together during a difficult time.”

Ben even tracks the water usage through his phone alerts, especially during irrigation season which runs April 15- September 15. When the river gauge hits a certain usage level, he gets an alert on his phone with up-to-date info, so he knows where he is at on water usage.

“I’d be lost without these alerts,” he said. “I rely on them to keep my farm in check during irrigation season.”

The next initiative is to implement storage. In the last three years, a coalition has joined together to develop plans for an 80-acre reservoir that could store water for late summer irrigation.

A site, owned by the Department of Natural Resources, is already designated as the property.

The most significant hurdle with storage is cost, but the Smith Family feels confident that this will be a solution to a long-term issue.

“Tribe, irrigators, fish and wildlife, County conservation district, every player is involved in this effort,” Ben said. “Each group has their own advantages of partaking in the storage.”

They are hoping to be up and running with the storage in the next decade.

Now, Ben is not only carrying on his father’s torch through the farm but also as President of the Sequim Water Users Association. Both Ben and Troy serve on several of the irrigation companies and districts to help make sure that they are managed as efficiently as possible and ensure they maintain access to this valuable limited resource which is the lifeblood of their farm and future.

“I feel a lot of pride and a little bit of pressure taking on the farm,” Ben states as he overlooks the farm. “We’re so dependent on water. If we couldn’t rely on irrigation, our farm wouldn’t be a farm anymore. We couldn’t be more fortunate to have this partnership with the Tribe and others, always willing to sit down at the table and locally problem solve our issues, instead of wasting everyone’s time and money in court.”