Thus far, knock on wood, this hasn’t been a “flood year,” but we did have some flooding right before Christmas. We live in a dike district- our house is on the hillside above the floodplain, but our pastures are river bottom land. We pay “special assessments” on our property taxes to be part of a flood control district. The district manages not only the dike which protects our valley from the Snohomish and Pilchuck Rivers, but also a huge network of old drainage ditches which are designed to keep our pastures dry year-round.
On occasion the dike will “overtop” (or even blow out), and then we get a serious, six-foot-under-style flood. But most years, the worst we have is the threat of flood, and the preparation drills that come with the rising river gauge measurements.
The week before Christmas, I was coming and going in the dark, not really seeing much beyond the small span of my headlamp during morning and evening chores. I thought there was a lot of water in the fields, but during heavy rainfall, we do get some standing water that is slow to drain. But by Thursday, it was clearly much more than usual: our center field was half under water, with only the perimeter dry. (It’s shaped like a bowl from decades of old fashioned plows, and spoils dug from the ditches and spread in a radius). Our neighbor’s field was a lake! In the picture above, you can see it in the background: that’s about 18 acres under at least a foot of water.
It’s amazing how a valley that looks flat and level really isn’t, and you can’t see it until water starts to fill it. The thousands of migratory waterfowl we have coming through right now were pleased, but I was not!
It turned out that the ditches were full, and backing up into the fields at the lowest points. I called our district manager, but alas, he was out of town for the holidays, only able to make contact with all of us via cell phone. Our neighbor, a commercial tree farmer, helped to investigate, as he was having trouble with water too. The ditches were too full to try to verify whether some culvert was plugged deep below. We walked the whole length looking for beaver dams, but didn’t spot any. (And on the way back, Kirk and I both slipped and fell into a newly dug ditch, which we had forgotten about: such a cold shock to be waist-deep in December water!) The best we could do was wait for the water to recede and re-check things then.
Part of the problem is that this system of drainage ditches and culverts is very old. Some are likely many decades old; this valley was first homesteaded and “de-swamped” in the 1880’s. Some of culvert pipes have shifted, broken, clogged or are otherwise starting to fail. Others were not designed to handle the extra volume of water we now see, caused by heavy development and deforestation on the hill above us. So, it’s an ongoing management challenge keeping the system functional.
We’ve had some nice, dry weeks since then, and our pasture has mostly recovered. Now, if we can just figure out the problem and prevent it from recurring!