From the Tigris and Euphrates, to the Mississippi and the Yangtze, floodplains are great places to farm. The soil is generally fertile due to silt deposition by rivers, and the land is flat. Floodplains support rich biodiversity, too, and the ones in the Pacific Northwest have long been the hunting and fishing grounds of Native Americans. But as development spreads, floodplains are often paved over and land-based productivity is lost.
For Jordan Jobe, that’s all part of the challenge of advocating for agriculture in the Puyallup watershed. Based at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, she works with a wide range of local partners to maximize multiple benefits from the rich promise of the Puyallup River and other local floodplains.
Jobe is the manager of Farming in the Floodplain Project that seeks to mitigate flood risk, restore habitat, increase the number of fish returning to streams, and, she says, “to keep agriculture viable, because we value local food and we value that use of the land.”
One of the biggest challenges for Jobe and her partners is drainage and getting water off the land in time to plant crops.
Part of the problem in the Puyallup watershed is reed canary grass, “a fast growing, difficult to eradicate invasive species,” Jobe says. “You can plant riparian buffers that shade out reed canary grass, or you can spray it with limited success, but if it’s growing in a ditch and gets mowed without being removed, it creates a big pile of muck that traps water.”
Maintaining a balance between development and agricultural and habitat needs is challenging, too. But there are some good reasons to think that viable farms should be part of the picture for the future. Well-managed farms can improve water quality. As Jobe says, farms can be part of fish habitat restoration. “When you compare farms with runoff from impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots, fish do better next to a farm.”
Farms also sequester carbon and provide other ecosystem services such as healthy soils.
Jobe’s efforts at building community-based consensus around local land use also inspire her to look for ways to bring about a much larger, region-wide collaboration.
“I think people in the Puget Sound region who are involved in the areas of agriculture, conservation, habitat restoration, and more need to have better information regarding what to expect from climate change. Precipitation changes, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, groundwater level rising—there are so many potential impacts from climate change and we need to know a lot more to support agricultural resilience regionally.
“We all value agriculture,” she adds, “so we need to support resilience now, because in 50 years it’s going to look very different. We need to be prepared to continue producing food for a region that is developing and going to be experiencing stress from climate change.”