Combating Drought on the Dungeness River

Program: Washington Water Trust (WWT) Dry Year Leasing Program

Location: Dungeness River watershed, Washington State


  •     Water Conservation & Stewardship 
  •     Wildlife Habitat Protection

Located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Dungeness River is one of the shortest and steepest rivers in North America. Snow and ice melt drop dramatically from 7,000 foot-plus peaks in the Olympic Mountains down to sea level in less than 32 miles, finally emptying into the Salish Sea. As the main water supply for the Dungeness River Valley, the Dungeness River watershed supports irrigation agriculture and development, residential drinking water, native populations of salmon and trout, resident and migratory waterfowl, and a wide range of other wildlife.

The Dungeness River is located in the “rain shadow” or the drier side of the Olympic Mountains, so it gets less precipitation than other areas of the Pacific Northwest, making the watershed historically prone to drought. River flows here are almost entirely dependent on mountain snowmelt, reaching their lowest levels in late summer. Warming weather trends are now affecting flows more than ever, with 2019 marking the fourth driest year since 1895, and the third drought declaration for the watershed since 2015. 

To help restore water flows to the region in the late summer, ECOS provides support to the Dungeness Dry Year Leasing Program. Created through a partnership between the Washington Water Trust (WWT), the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s Water Restoration Program, ECOS helps the program lease land from commercial irrigators from August 15 – September 15. The land is then left uncultivated and is not irrigated during this time, helping reduce water use and giving river levels a chance to rise. In 2019, the program secured land representing as much as 10% of the Dungeness River flow, helping it stay above the minimum target levels for river health while helping support local communities until fall rains arrive. With the Dungeness River also home to a number of different salmon or salmon-like types of fish known as salmonids, the program is also timed to occur during peak spawning season, when the fish migrate from ocean waters back up the river to lay their eggs.

We are proud to help ensure an efficient water supply through programs like the WWT Dry Year Leasing Program. This program is essential to the preservation and restoration of a high-quality Dungeness River habitat for keystone species like Pacific salmonids and the 138 other species in the ecosystem that depend on them – including humans.