Horseneck Farm: Increasing land access for King County’s diverse farmers while protecting fish and other aquatic species with fish screens

Between Auburn and Kent is a protected parcel of land known as Horseneck Farm. Produce such as cucumbers, eggplant, corn, and peas are just some of the crops thriving in the Kent Valley, which was once rich with farms and agriculture. Horseneck Farm flourishes next to the Green River and is just a few miles from Kent’s downtown center. King County bought the plot over 40 years ago to preserve some of the area’s last remaining farmland with the intention of providing the community accessible land and farm space.

In 2021, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) supported the project by providing technical assistance for a fish screen for the farm’s water needs. An important component to Horseneck Farm is a well-functioning irrigation system to properly care for crops. Pumping water to garden plots from the Green River hydrates the land so farmers can harvest during hot summer months. The new fish screen protects the Green River’s fish and other aquatic species while helping keep irrigation lines clean.

With assistance from WDFW, Horseneck Farm installed a fish screen for their irrigation system, which will prevent fish from becoming entrained or trapped from water use.

Currently over a dozen community members work the farm’s soil and maintain their own plot of land, many of which are no stranger to agriculture. Several farmers who’ve immigrated from other countries are growing crops from their homeland and creating connections with their community in the process. By providing access to green space, King County has given refugees and immigrants a place to continue their farming practices and an opportunity to share traditional crops with their neighbors and local communities.

Using screens to protect fish and other aquatic species

Fish screens are physical structures placed at a water diversion to prevent juvenile fish from becoming trapped or injured from systems drawing water from local sources. Commonly, fish screens are made from metal mesh that water can pass through without impacting fish in the process.

“Any time someone is taking surface water where fish life could be impacted, they need to have a fish screen in place,” said WDFW biologist Katrina Simmons. “There’s a long history of fish being diverted from their natural waterways into irrigation canals and littering farmers’ fields. Installing fish screens is a way to keep fish from being entrained into those water diversions.”

Human-made surface water diversions like those used for irrigation, municipal purposes, and other uses, are required to have a compliant fish screen, regardless of the amount of water withdrawn from streams, rivers, lakes, or reservoirs.

WDFW provides fish screen support for landowners statewide

WDFW’s Fish Screening Team currently consists of four members who support landowners with technical assistance for fish screening projects throughout the state. Katrina explains, “Our role is to interpret fish screening and passage criteria, protect fish, and provide technical assistance for those that need fish screens.”

WDFW provides support to private landowners, restoration entities, NGOs, and other state and federal partners on water related projects to determine their fish screen needs. The Department can assess existing screens, provide information on upgrades and recommendations, and assist those who need a fish screen for their water intake.

What makes fish screens specialized is the specific set of criteria required in order to be compliant. Screen needs are different from one site to another, and that’s where WDFW can help.

“There are so many aspects that go into selecting the appropriate fish screen, and that’s really what the technical assistance is about,” Katrina said. “We help guide water users to choose the right type of fish screen for their site.”

Pump screens — such as the one installed at Horseneck Farm — is one type of fish screen available, they’re often used for irrigation diversions.

Normally, fish screens are outlined as mandatory standards for those using federal grants for projects such as irrigation efficiency improvements or utilizing funding from a conversation district.

“It’s second nature for us fish screening biologists to recite compliance criteria, but it’s not practical to expect water users to know the ins and outs of what makes a fish screen compliant,” said Danny Didricksen, WDFW’s Fish Screening Section Manager. “Rather than reading through an entire manual, we can teach people how to be compliant with their water diversions. They don’t have to go through a whole process of learning about the specific criteria for their needs, we can guide them in the right direction, and it’s really rewarding.”

Example of a fish screen WDFW replaced. The old screen on the right was undersized for its water use. The new screen on the left is properly sized, has correct mesh, and is built to stand off a stream bed.

For farmers around the state with larger and more costly projects, screening experts can help identify funding options and provide project support with pre-planning, installation, and maintenance. Landowners and farmers can hire WDFW through a service contract to immediately service and evaluate any problems, an easy way to meet maintenance obligations.

Fish screens benefit landowners and aquatic life

Fish screens prevent fish and other species from being harmed or trapped in irrigation channels and increase the survival of fish when irrigators draw from local water sources. Fish screens not only protect wild fish but can increase the likelihood of hatchery fish survival.

“We don’t want fish from hatcheries being released into streams and ending up in someone’s irrigation system,” Danny said.

Additionally, screens act as a type of filter, which provides people cleaner water and creates a reliable water flow.

“One of the coolest things about fish screens is that they’re very effective debris screens,” Katrina said. “They can filter out sediment, pine needles, leaves, or other things that could clog up pumps and cause damage, while protecting fish life.”

Providing technical assistance to Horseneck Farm

In 2021, WDFW had an opportunity to contribute to Horseneck Farm’s irrigation system. WDFW provided technical assistance for implementing their fish screen to safely pump water from the Green River and prevent fish and other aquatic species from being impacted.

Katrina assisted King County staff to determine the type of fish screen that was best for their water uses, including size, placement, and shape.

“One of the things our fish screen team does well is provide customer-based interaction for individual community members as well as larger partners such as King County,” Danny said.

Horseneck Farm’s success is attributed to King County’s collaboration with partners and local organizations. By continuing to build partnerships, WDFW hopes to further connect with organizations and community members and support their water sourcing projects and help guide to those who need it.

“We hope to provide more precise resources to water users and establish lasting partnerships,” Danny said. “Grant funding may also be available for projects, and we can help identify those opportunities.”

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about how WDFW can support your water sourcing system, contact WDFW’s Fish Screen Team at fishscreening@dfw.wa.gov to set up a site visit. They can assist you with free planning, implementation, and maintenance of your fish screens.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.