Water Wonder

Washington State drought maps reflect another record breaking summer of heat. Our numerous beautiful rivers are vulnerable, shallow bathtubs, not suitable for salmon spawning. Temperate rain forests are visibly stressed; under-story plants wither, their roots parched through twelve inches deep in crackling needle duff. Dust kicks up as livestock roam barren pastures that look more like moon scapes. Even here at EEC Forest Stewardship, sheep have been hay rationed to prevent weight loss going into slaughter season. Our pond is pea green soup with only a few feet of moisture left to keep fish and cattails alive. The creek is now truly creeping along, keeping a few deeper pools viable for trout fry. This salmon waterway has also remained cool thanks to an intact forest canopy of shade through summer’s scalding intensity. Crayfish, mottled sculpins, fish, and our endangered freshwater muscles all crowd together in an attempt to survive.

Wildfires have been increasing, and again, without rain, this trend will continue to climb. At EEC, we’ve continued to work on drought resilience, from water catchment and retention to selecting drought tolerant species for long term viability. Oak savanna is looking like the best option for future forests here in Western Washington. Our weather might eventually look more like that of California, so western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and even red cedar will not be planted. Douglas fir is also drought tolerant, along with shore pine, and even western white pine might make a return, we’re planting it at EEC in small numbers. Young trees will have to receive irrigation to survive their first few summers; our pillow tank had played a vital role in establishing an orchard. After the fruit trees can stand alone, the tank can be moved to another location to water young forest plantings, or remain where it is, and offer gravity fed drip irrigation to whatever need water the most.

Though much of Western Washington’s climate change struggle revolves around heat, like most of the world, we’re also continuing to receive long periods of precipitation. EEC is located in the foothills of The Cascades, which create a massive Orographic lift right over our habitat. Along with the rains, we are starting to see more snow too. The Jet Stream does a lot to dictate temperatures and moisture influx to our region. Right now, as I write this post, we are getting rain, measurable precipitation for the first time since June. It is the end of September, and about two inches is expected to fall over the next few days. It will not make up for the drought, but it will throw a lifeline to the ecology of Western Washington. In these unprecedented times, we must adapt or face critical failure.

For EEC, this failure would look like a catastrophic loss of plantings, causing a severe financial deficit, but also an ecological interruption in reforestation for the greater ecosystem. Already, plantings put in across several acres of our stream buffer have taken a real hit from the dry heat of two summers in a row. Though most still survive, they face an uphill battle against mounting climate shift odds. When rains do come, the water is fast and furious, running over the parched ground without much time to sink in. Without slow, deep moisture events, our aquifers cannot recharge. Without plentiful ground water, species like hemlock and cedar, who rely on wetlands to thrive, will continue to recede. A row of ponderosa pine planted eight years ago, are finally taking off; well adjusted to the weather extremes. They are certainly more adapted to snow, which will come with more frequency as our dramatic weather continues.

Last winter, 2020-21, we had some big snow storms. This was a great recharge to our aquifers, and a slow drip moisture bank for the plants. Unfortunately, the snow also creates other challenges, including structural failures if a roof is not pitched enough, or hazard conditions for travel and local access. Having lived in New England, where snow is a normal occurrence, I’ve got some awareness of precautions and solutions, like chains for the truck to get out of our driveway without a plow. I’ve also overwintered on the east side at elevation, enough to know when it’s time to shovel off a barn roof or clear walkways and entrances to keep building accesses open. Usually, the snow melts within a few days, but a couple of winters ago we had a snow that stayed on the ground for over a month, and that was a real setback in pasture management. Valley farmers saw their tractors struggling in the marshy soil well into May, and a lot of fields missed Spring planting.

On the last day of September, 2021, we received another weather front with more rain. Grass is up three inches in the back pasture, and I’ve begun moving hoses from sprinkler setups to cistern catchments in anticipation of good roof runoff in the heavy rains. In EEC’s design plan, we redirect all water from hard surfaces, like roofs and driveway, into our pond. It spent the summer dropping, and bottomed out at about 4 feet, just enough depth to keep our fish alive, but inviting an algae bloom. In the past two weeks of rain, the water level has risen about six inches, and we’re expecting another half foot in these next few days. It’s the first time we’ve had so much direct catchment, and fingers crossed we’ll have a full pond this year by the end of winter. It will be a huge milestone in water management at EEC Forest Stewardship.

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