In the past few years, one consistent question from farmers and residents in the Clear Creek area has been: How much water is coming off the hillside from Waller and surrounding areas? We know a lot of development has occurred, and it seems like there is an increasing flow of water onto our land!
The excess water- some of it stormwater runoff from development upstream– ponds on agricultural land, making it dicey for farmers to get onto the land in time in early Spring to plant a first round of crops. Poor drainage in the Clear Creek area exacerbates the situation, meaning that farmers often find themselves with soggy land much later in the season than they’d like!
The water is likely coming from different sources- precipitation, of course, but also high groundwater levels, poor drainage throughout the system, and some proportion of the water is running off the hillside’s impervious surfaces, entering the four creeks (Canyon, Clear, Squally, and Swan) and flowing into the floodplain below. This last piece is one question we’re interested in answering!
In April 2019, a team from WSU Puyallup, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, and Pierce County explored possibilities for placing stream gauges on each of the four creeks. Combined with a stream survey, data from the gauges could be used to calculate approximately how much water is flowing off the hillside onto the land below. This information will be used to help the Floodplains for the Future partnership determine whether sediment ponds or other flow-control methods (like installing sediment traps or large woody debris to trap material, slowing flow downstream) might benefit the land below. The end goal, from an agricultural perspective, is to minimize the impact of stormwater runoff on agricultural lands, allowing our local farmersto use their land more productively to produce our food!
Installation of gauges will be happening soon, and data should start rolling in thereafter- we’ll need about a year’s worth of flow data to get a sense for the answers we need. Building a better picture of the hydrology of the Clear Creek system will help all of us understand specific actions we can take to improve drainage!
In the Puget Sound Region, it’s clear that climate change impacts will involve changes in precipitation that will impact agriculture, especially agriculture in floodplain areas (Mauger et al. 2015). However, it’s not yet known how precipitation pattern changes will combine with changes in stormwater run-off and sea-level rise… and how these changes might differ between different watersheds. Flood risk reduction folks want this information so that they know how to properly size new culverts. Fish folks want this information to place and design salmon habitat restoration projects.
Nancy’s Ditch, a key agricultural ditch in the Puyallup Watershed’s Clear Creek area, is consistently slow-flowing and full of water. Photo: J. Jobe.
But, it turns out that this information will also dramatically impact what to do about agricultural drainage, a current challenge. Getting surface water off of fields early enough to plant spring crops can be tricky, and often the fall rains saturate fields before farmers can plant winter cover crops. Farmers need to know what to expect from precipitation changes in the future so that they can adapt to those changes. Crop selection, cover crop timing, and maintained agricultural drainage infrastructure will be critical for future agricultural viability, as much or more than it is today. So, it is important that farmers also understand and have the ability to use climate change information.
In the Puyallup Watershed, floodplains host a diverse array of farms and agricultural businesses that benefit from the rich floodplain soils. They also are under pressure of development, suffer frequent flooding, and provide inadequate fish habitat. Recognizing the conflicting pressures, the Floodplains for the Future Partnership of 22 partner organizations are working to support the recovery of floodplain functions. The key is to achieve that by balancing farm, fish, and flood interests and needs.
The Partnership’s Farm Committee has taken the lead role in understanding, researching, and advocating for agricultural viability in Pierce County so that the agricultural community’s needs are met whenever possible by this multiple-benefit effort. Since 2015, their efforts have focused on the Farming in the Floodplain Project (now affiliated with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources), working to identify agricultural viability needs and support actions that could improve the ability of farmers to successfully farm in Pierce County.
The first three years of this work led to some not-terribly-surprising conclusions and next steps for Pierce County: agricultural drainage, often the biggest physical barrier to agricultural viability, has been inadequately maintained for decades, and now is worsening flood risk (Environmental Science Associates 2017). In addition, as our Partnership works to improve agricultural drainage (at a landscape scale, as well as through policy), we’ve recognized that there are serious gaps in our understanding of how to address future agricultural drainage needs, because these will change with a changing climate.
We are not alone in this. As we wrestled with the best way to get robust data around future precipitation changes and sea level rise, we realized that our counterparts working on the flood and fish habitat side of things—the other two legs in this integrated management stool—needed very similar data to understand things like what vegetation to use in restoration efforts, and how tall to construct levees. We were all using different reports, baseline data, and models to understand how our shared landscape might be impacted by climate change… so how likely were we to find solutions that work for farms, fish and flood?
In order to meet the need for solid, relevant, and specific climate change data, we decided to collaborate, pool resources, and design a shared approach. We have partnered with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group to collate available data, determine what we should use as shared baselines, identify data gaps, and define a path forward to collaboratively develop new models for the Puyallup Watershed.
Farm, Fish, and Flood folks meet on a farm in the Puyallup Watershed to better understand how this farmer successfully farms with the existing high groundwater levels and agricultural drainage systems.
This approach is unique, but logical: collaboration will lead to a greater understanding of the specific predicted changes for our Watershed, it allows us to pool our resources (time and money) and we will create better-quality models with a higher degree of buy-in from the many partners involved in this work.
Working collaboratively, the Floodplains for the Future Partnership’s shared development of climate change data will allow us to continue to build trust between interests that sometimes are at odds—between agricultural landowners and the County, between fish biologists and farmers. We will have a clearer idea of how precipitation changes may impact the land use decisions that face our Partnership. By the end of 2019, this work will have taken shape: we’ll have a shared path forward to fill in the critical gaps for climate change data needs to inform better decisions for farm, fish, and flood-focused efforts.
Mauger, G.S., J.H. Casola, H.A. Morgan, R.L. Strauch, B. Jones, B. Curry, T.M. Busch Isaksen, L. Whitely Binder, M.B. Krosby, and A.K. Snover. 2015. State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound. Section 8: How will Climate Change Impact Agriculture?Report prepared for the Puget Sound Partnership and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington, Seattle. doi:10.7915/CIG93777D
Environmental Science Associates. 2017. Final Drainage Inventory Memorandum. Memo prepared for the Farming in the Floodplain Project and PCC Farmland Trust. Accessed Nov. 28, 2018.
The first Puget Sound Region Agricultural Drainage Conference will be held on Wednesday February 6th, from 8:30am-4:30pm at Allmendinger Hall on the WSU-Puyallup Campus: 2606 West Pioneer Ave, Puyallup WA 98371.
Are you a Drainage District Commissioner? Do you work for a Conservation District, County Ag Program or Surface Water Management division, or a non-profit organization, and deal with agricultural drainage or water management issues? Do you live/work in the Puget Sound region? This conference is for you!
The first Puget Sound Region Agricultural Drainage Conference, hosted by WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, will be a day for staff and District Commissioners from regional organizations working on agricultural drainage issues to share challenges, solutions, lessons learned, and begin to set the stage for potential future collaborations, research efforts, or conversations. The day will feature interactive panels, relevant discussions, and ample time for networking and meeting folks working on similar issues.
Pierce Conservation District, King County Water and Land Resources Division, and Pierce County’s Agriculture Program
*This conference is supported by the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) and the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE). This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2017-38640-26916 through the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under subaward number 201207-511. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider.
Pierce County Roads division has been expressing interest in understanding how better to support improved agricultural drainage by re-visiting their maintenance schedule and methods. Typically, their crew visits a few times a year, mows down the grass (mostly reed canarygrass or blackberries) and departs. However, this leaves piles of debris in ditches, which may eventually make their way to a culvert, and may only partially decompose, therefore blocking water from draining from the ditch. They’re now seeking a few locations to try out alternative methods, including cutting grass shorter, removing debris, and/or placing a mat down to block weed growth. They’re also open to conducting a survey of the ditch to remove high/low spots to improve flow!
Let us know if you know of any ditches that drain agricultural fields AND are maintained by Pierce County Roads department, and we can connect you with the right folks!
The Floodplains for the Future partnership is awaiting funding from the third round of Floodplains by Design funding, but the partners are already working hard to move projects ahead. One project that the Farming in the Floodplain Project is excited about is the opportunity to improve agricultural drainage in the Clear Creek area by reconnecting floodplain and restoring Clear Creek on a ~30+ acre parcel of property now owned by the County. Drainage District 10 will be a part of this effort, and in order to make informed, data-backed decisions about how to restore this property, we’re collaborating with flood and fish interests to collect information that will point this effort towards success.
This means collecting data about:
surface and groundwater levels in the Clear Creek basin- what do water levels look like over the course of a year?
the hydraulic grade line- what’s the slope from one end to the Puyallup River- is it enough to drain the basin?
the amount of water the four tributaries (Swan, Squally, Clear, and Canyon Creeks) contribute off the plateau onto the floodplain- how much water is coming off the plateau and draining through the floodplain?
salinity- is saltwater water from downstream making it to this system during high tides?
We’re all working to figure out how to share resources and existing equipment in order to collect this data. The end result will be a way better understanding of how water moves around Clear Creek, which will give us all a better path forward to integrating agricultural drainage elements into this restoration project. For example, “re-meandering” Clear Creek by un-pinning it from the railroad tracks could improve flow and water storage. Understanding the slope of the floodplain within the creek/ditch system can show us where to focus efforts to clear, widen, or alter the ditches.
For more information about this effort, or about the Farming in the Floodplain Project, email Jordan.
The Floodplains for the Future (FFTF) partnership- the group that received the first Floodplains by Design grants- continues to successfully collaborate, and received several recent large grants that will be used to further this work. Floodplains by Design funding will be arriving shortly, and the Farming in the Floodplain Project is planning for the next two years worth of work! Our work continues to be guided by the FFTF Agricultural Committee, comprised of staff from WSU-Puyallup, Forterra, PCC Farmland Trust, Pierce Conservation District, and Pierce County (Planning and Lands Services and Surface Water Management), as well as several local farmers/growers.
For the next two or so years (June 2018- June 2020) we will continue to work within the Clear Creek community on the following tasks:
Explore the feasibility of separating agricultural drainage from the Clear Creek system, including examining alternative drainage infrastructure for the near term and long term;
Support the local drainage district and others within the county to determine what it takes to make a district viable and functional;
Participate, and advocate for agricultural perspectives, in Pierce County’s Clear Creek Strategy Process;
Collaborate with Flood and Habitat Leads to co-design a project on 40-80 acres of SWM-owned property that will restore habitat and improve agricultural drainage.
We are also continuing to collaborate with many partners to look at drainage problems within the Puyallup Watershed, and seeking options to support improved physical conditions and policies that will lead to improved agricultural drainage.
We’ve created six helpful and simple fact sheets to summarize the results and recommendations from our key reports and memos. These describe our research, what we found, and actions that can be taken to support agricultural viability in the Clear Creek area.
The final version of the Flood Risk Memo is available here: Flood Risk Memo. This document examines the many sources of flood risk in the Clear Creek area, and describes some actions that would increase or decrease flood risk.
The review process was lengthy and intensive and involved incorporation of input from dozens of individuals- thank you to everyone who took the time to read and thoroughly review this memo, including residents and farmers in the community, Drainage District 10 commissioners, Pierce County staff, and representatives of habitat interests.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement made between a landowner and a conservation nonprofit or government body. Agricultural conservation easements permanently protect farmland from future development while ensuring it remains available for agricultural production. The easement does this by permanently removing development rights, prohibiting incompatible uses (industrial and commercial), and protecting the property’s agricultural values, including the soils, water rights, and open space.
Washington State’s Conservation Easement Enabling Statuses (Washington Rev. Code 84.34.200 to 84.34.250) recognizes the public benefit in the preservation of open space and allows for the use and public funding of conservation easements to protect this public benefit.
RCW 84.34.200: “The legislature finds that the haphazard growth and spread of urban development is encroaching upon, or eliminating, numerous open areas and spaces of varied size and character, including many devoted to agriculture, the cultivation of timber, and other productive activities, and many others having significant recreational, social, scenic, or esthetic values. Such areas and spaces, if preserved and maintained in their present open state, would constitute important assets to existing and impending urban and metropolitan development, at the same time that they would continue to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the citizens of the state as a whole. The acquisition of interests or rights in real property for the preservation of such open spaces and areas constitutes a public purpose for which public funds may properly be expended or advanced.”
Because conservation easements involve private negotiations between a landowner and an easement holding entity, those negotiations are typically handled with care to protect any sensitive landowner information and respect privacy during negotiations. Many elements of the conservation easement process are public record however, including grant applications to public agencies for easement funding, finalized transactions and recorded acquisition documents, and public and educational events hosted on protected properties after closing.
How much is a conservation easement worth? Who is compensated for an easement?
The value of a conservation easement is determined by an appraisal, which considers the value of the property and its development rights according to the “highest and best use” of the property. The value of an agricultural conservation easement is the fair market value of the property minus its agricultural value, as determined by a qualified appraiser. In general, agreements that are more restrictive have a higher value. If the easement is being purchased by a land trust or government entity, the landowner is compensated cash through escrow for appraised value of the conservation easement. If the easement is being donated to a land trust, the appraised value of the conservation easement can be used as a basis for the landowner to claim income tax incentives on a charitable contribution. For more information on the tax incentives of donating a conservation easement, please see here.
What is in a conservation easement? What is allowed and what is restricted?
The management and stewardship of easements are a perpetual responsibility and involve additional costs to the holding entity. Government agencies, which are the primary funders of easements through public grants, require certain restrictions and management. PCC Farmland Trust [holding entities] has high respect for private landowner rights when managing easements, and works closely with landowners and tenants. Perpetual responsibilities and costs of holding easements include:
enforcement costs of violations,
natural resource management through stewardship planning,
and opportunities for educational events (which are negotiated with landowners on a case-by-case basis and are not a requirement of the easement).
Land Trusts, County Government, Conservation Districts or State and Federal Government can hold easements. Land Trusts and County Governments are the most common holders of easements. All easement holders work under the same base set of legal standards, public benefit requirements, private benefit prohibitions, and funding requirements.
Conservation easement projects are prioritized by a number of factors. For agricultural conservation easements, most public funding sources agree on the key indicators of long-term agricultural value and viability – prime soils, water availability, on-site infrastructure, historical productivity, market access, proximity to other agricultural lands, and proximity to other protected open space, among others. In addition, projects are also prioritized by potential threat of conversion, as well as the general open space benefits (including water quality, wildlife habitat, and scenic views). In Pierce County, the members of the Strategic Conservation Partnership (SCP) partnered with the Pierce County Ag Roundtable to conduct a GIS-based prioritization of farmland protection opportunities in Pierce County; based on a set of farmland quality indicators (soils, location, etc.) and threat indicators (pending plats, proximity to urban growth boundaries). This prioritization is used by the SCP as a guide for landowner outreach and evaluation of farmland conservation opportunities in Pierce County.
A land trust or other conservation partner must undertake many steps before it can purchase an easement, including conducting a site assessment, securing of public funds, conducting acquisition and liability due diligence, and completing title review and baseline documentation. Because easements are primarily funded through public grants, which are available on either an annual or a biennial basis, it typically takes 2 years or more for a land trust or conservation partner to purchase an easement.
Can a landowner sell a conserved property? What happens to the easement?
Because easements are tied to the property and not the landowner, landowners can sell their conserved property and the property will continue to be protected by the conservation easement. Any future landowner is responsible for upholding the conservation easement.
Can easements change after they’ve been agreed to?
Easements are not meant to change over time. They are written to be perpetual legal agreements. There are enforcement and amendment processes described in the easement for situations when an easement needs to be amended. Anytime an easement is amended there needs to be a net conservation benefit from the amendment. An easement cannot be amended without agreement of the current landowner.
What is the value of an easement when development is restricted by zoning, like in a floodplain?
When valuing a conservation easement, an appraiser takes into account the development pressure and potential uses of a property. Depending on zoning, a limited amount of development may still be allowed, making a conservation easement hold some value. Typically greater development pressure will result in a higher easement value.
Although PCC Farmland Trust places a strong emphasis on keeping farmland actively farmed, the public benefit test required of an easement is met by the land staying as “open space”. In general, requiring a landowner to keep a property in production is a sticky issue. Given the way that easements function legally, they are more effective as a tool to prohibit a certain activity, than to require a certain activity to happen. While it is difficult to require conserved land to be farmed, PCC Farmland Trust’s easement does incorporate a number of provisions to encourage continued agricultural use, including provisions requiring current use enrollment, maintenance of water rights and open fields, and limitations supporting long-term affordability.