(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Water keeps farmers off ground late into spring…
When May came, all Addy farmer Doug Falstad could do was look at the window at where his crops should be growing and his tractor should be going.
Instead, there was just a lake of water lapping below the road where his house sits.
A snowy winter saw snowpack build up to 141 percent in May, swelling area waterways. The cold weather kept the snow in the valley before melting at the exact time that the Spokane area experienced its fourth wettest March on record. The combination was a trifecta of misery for farmers.
“It’s usually a little wet in May but normally we’re out there farming — normally the river is back over there,” Falstad said.
While Falstad’s land doesn’t directly border the Colville River, the elevation, among other factors, kept water levels high even in May. It was the worst flooding he’s seen in the area, saying that even during flooding in 1997 some areas were still workable.
For Hagen Cattle and Hay outside of Chewelah, knee-high water sat in parts of their fields and their cattle had yet to be put out to pasture in May since that too is underwater. It was the worst flooding the family business has ever seen since moving there in 1988.
The problem is, too, this wasn’t a week or two of flooding but an entire month and counting for many area farmers.
“Even in the flooding in the 90s, the water went away quickly and this year it’s just laying out there,” Addy farmer Ron McLean said.
At this point in the year, McLean said he usually had 100 acres planted, but has only got to 45. He’s now planning on working winter wheat and hoping for the best next year.
“If you plant anything else, it’s too late in the year and you’re harvesting in October which is a small window for the right conditions,” McLean said.
Temperatures have increased, waters have receded from area roads and generally flooding is farthest from people’s minds as they get ready for summer vacations and camping. For farmers, however, while everything looks much drier, they’re still dealing with the ramifications.
Forget sitting water, a field has to have the water down 6-8 inches into the soil so everything has a firm top, according to Lauren Hagen of Hagen Cattle. Without that firm top, a farmer can tear up a field.
“When it’s wet like that you have to put everything on all stop,” Hagen said. “When you work wet ground it packs down, creates a hardpan nothing grows on and that never goes away unless you work the soil again.”
Now with planting and growing getting pushed back because of the flood, farmers may need to change crops. The Hagens might have to go for barley and oats instead of alfalfa and wheat and there is the concern that a crop planted too late won’t be mature enough to survive the hot Eastern Washington summer. They expect their cuttings to drop from three this summer to two for alfalfa.
With the cows not yet out to pasture that also increases costs since they have to purchase the hay to feed the cattle.
Falstad said he fully expects not to have a crop this year and is just planning on waiting to plant winter wheat. This is a story repeated by farmers in the area that have lower elevation farmland.
Options for help are limited as well. Crop insurance is one way to negate the effects of the flooding, but in the past flooding crop insurance has been unnecessary in Northeastern Washington.
“Our natural disasters around here are fairly limited,” Hagen said. “We have no flood insurance for our crops, we have drought, hail and wind insurance but it’s just another gamble. It’s fairly expensive like most insurance and if you don’t have a loss it becomes a drain on your finances.”
Falstad echoed those sentiments saying the valley has always produced a crop and crop insurance for flooding hasn’t been necessary.
The USDA Farm Service Agency is working to help farmers fix fences and clear debris — a major problem with flooding — and is working on a cost-share program for area farmers.
“Folks who have damage can apply for the cost-share and make sure you have a picture or some sort of evidence of the damage,” USDA Farm Service Agency District Director Steven L. King said.
One solution some farmers feel would be viable is dredging the Colville River. Dean Hanley, who grew up in Valley and has been farming in the Chewelah Valley since 1960, said he hasn’t seen flooding this bad overall.
“That river needs to be dredged,” Hanley said.
Hanley had an area dredged where Huckleberry Creek ran into the Colville back in the 1960s. The operation that did it used cable machinery instead of hydraulics.
“That is a problem spot and all the sand and silting were damming things up there,” Hanley said.
He said they didn’t do the dredging very far, but when he was a kid in Valley he remembered extensive dredging in the river.
While Hanley said he wasn’t as directly impacted by the flooding this year, he said he expects there will be about 20 acres of land he won’t be able to touch.
“I feel like while dredging wouldn’t have stopped all the flooding, it would have definitely helped,” Falstad said.
McLean echoed those sentiments, saying in older days the river was kept up with regular matinence.
“But I don’t know how the state and federal government would feel about that now,” he added.
Dredging the Colville River isn’t something new. It began in the early 20th century and several dredging districts were set up in the Valley. When World War Two hit, there was a bigger demand for food production and dredging continued to create more acres of farmable land.
Falstad said that his father Wayne remember before major dredging when the river meandered more and people used the valley floor to go ice skating on the slow winding areas that were usually swampy. He also added he thinks the flooding is getting worse because of built up sediment and a reduction in flow capacity.
Hagen thinks that the banks built up from dredging have aged and are beginning to be eaten away by flooding. Since they’re degrading it’s allowing for water to escape the crumbling banks and find itself on farmland.
Getting a permit and handling the dredging by landowners now requires an application and several agencies have oversight. The process is admittedly confusing according to some sources and can be daunting for a farmer who already has his hands full working his land.
The Stevens County Conservation District has started working with landowners and will be working with regulatory agencies and political avenues to look at the management of the Colville River.
“We just try to figure out what works for people and try to get them the information that they can use to look for a solution,” said Adam Cares of the SCCD.
While there are no sure answers right now as how farmers should deal with flooding like this, with tractors still in the barn in the month of May, it’s quite evident there is a problem brewing in the Colville Valley.