Water–Water–Everywhere–with–Nary–a–Drop–to–Drink

WRIA1_CoverContinuing on our water theme, I’ve asked for Ellen Baker, Glacier Water District Commissioner, to add more perspective on the pending water resource allocation to be done by the WRIA1 – Planning Unit.  This is a copy of what Ellen sent to me for a publication soon to be put to press by the local Business Pulse Magazine.  ~ Kris Halterman


Ms. Baker, Mr. Richards, Mr. Brown:

I’m a reporter working on a story about water rights in Whatcom County, for Business Pulse magazine. I’d like to talk to you about it. The questions below will give you an idea where I’m headed. The subject is vast, so I will limit my scope.

I expect my main sources for the story to be the Lummi Nation, and Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends. But it would be good to include others’ voices. Would you be willing to address the questions below? Please don’t feel obliged to answer every one. I realize every question may not apply to your expertise. Ideally, I’d like to hear from you by the end of this week, or at least by Monday, April 15.

It would be efficient to get your answers via email. Then I can follow up by phone or in person if needed.

Many thanks, and I hope to hear from you as soon as possible.
Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy / freelance journalist / Bellingham, WA 98225 / (630) 887-6634

  1. How would you sum up the issue of water rights in Whatcom County?
  2. Can you quantify, or at least address, the economic impact of water rights in Whatcom County?
  3. How would you identify the different players involved in this issue?
  4. Do you feel the Lummi view is generally shared by the Nooksack Tribe?
  5. Are the two main adversaries, in this issue at this moment, farmers and tribes?
  6. What do you see as the problem? What do you see as the best solution?
  7. What has brought water rights in Whatcom County to the fore again now?
  8. It is Nooksack River water that is the main issue now, rather than other basins?
  9. It’s been said that the tribes’ position is: County farmers can have all the water they need but must pay the tribes for it. Is that how you see the tribes’ position?
  10. It’s been asserted that some farmers irrigate without specific legal right. Your response?
  11. Anything else you’d like to add?
  12. Please include your exact title and company name.


Hi Cheryl,

You asked:

How would you sum up the issue of water rights in Whatcom County?

            I’m afraid that the term “water rights” is generally misunderstood, and claims about water “ownership” have been distorted.  The way the issue has been portrayed in recent years has been troubling.  Attempts to settle claims behind closed doors have not served the best interests of the community well.

            “Water rights” are a legal matter.  Decisions about equitable access and responsible stewardship of this key resource should be made openly.  Water is plentiful here, and it can be shared responsibly.  I believe it’s possible for the county to ensure that the matter is handled in a transparent, just, and civilized manner without grief.

Can you quantify, or at least address, the economic impact of water rights in Whatcom County?

            Despite drama and politicization of the “water rights” issue, a steady supply of rain from the Pacific Ocean will keep Whatcom County wet and green well into the future.

            This area has a natural abundance of water resources.  So the risk of “economic” impact may be related to legal disputes more than supply.

            The public should demand that our agencies ensure a level playing field where it comes to access.  “No thumbs should be allowed on the scale” of official resource studies and assessments.  I am concerned that water planning has become distorted by parties who want to avoid facing an impartial court that could settle legal claims objectively.

            I have been following this issue for a long time, and I feel that quite a bit of necessary local fieldwork has not been conducted yet, to verify that water supply models are correct.

            Millions have been spent on preliminary work, but “more certainty” will only be achieved when transparent and objective hydrology work is conducted and vetted by the local WRIA 1 Planning Unit.

            The planning process must ensure that water is shared in a way that everyone can understand and trust.

How would you identify the different players involved in this issue?

            The state “Watershed Planning Act” established a process for direct local involvement in management plans for water supply and for environmental protection.  Everyone affected is a “player,” and many have not had a voice.

            The state Department of Ecology and Whatcom County government (which is the “lead agency” for our watershed) have an obligation to make sure that everyone’s involved.  The federal government’s role is less direct.

            Neither the county nor the Department of Ecology have the legal authority to interfere with or settle legal disputes that arise.  Only courts of law can do that, in a process known as water rights “adjudication.”

            Many thousands of private well owners, people with homes and small farms, have not had an effective voice in the process.  While their wells and uses have been characterized by some as “illegal,” most draw so little water that they fall into a category known as “exempt.”

            Tribal interests, agricultural businesses, industry, land development, and commercial businesses fit into a variety of categories that access water differently, in a mix of surface and groundwater methods.

            Cities and official water districts have a duty to provide (purvey) a clean and plentiful supply of water.  Most water districts and non-government private associations draw water from wells.  Public purveyors’ legal rights and duties are different from private water users’.

            Ultimately, the needs of all parties, including the tribes, must be balanced.

Do you feel the Lummi view is generally shared by the Nooksack Tribe?

            Only the tribes can describe differences in their perspectives.

Are the two main adversaries, in this issue at this moment, farmers and tribes?

            No, I don’t think that’s accurate.  All current and potential future water users have an interest in the best use of the resource.

What do you see as the problem? What do you see as the best solution?

            A closed process has become a distraction that has aggravated the issue, and damaged objective local watershed planning processes.  I think this can be remedied.

What has brought water rights in Whatcom County to the fore again now?

            A number of public voices have demanded that Whatcom County reform watershed planning in our WRIA (water resources inventory area).  It’s essential that the issue be handled in a manner that’s less polarized and more representative.

It is Nooksack River water that is the main issue now, rather than other basins?

            No, not really.  All water resources in our watershed are interconnected and important.  A great deal of emphasis is focused on “instream flows,” but both the surface water in lakes, streams, and the river and the substantial amount groundwater in aquifers are a part of the big picture.   We need better watershed-wide hydrology – groundwater study — before legal “water rights” issues can be settled fairly.

It’s been said that the tribes’ position is: County farmers can have all the water they need but must pay the tribes for it. Is that how you see the tribes’ position?

            Only the tribes can describe what they have in mind.  What’s important to remember is that the resource needs of everyone matter, including the tribes’ needs, and of course protection of the environment which we all care about.  Every water “interest” must be weighed and balanced fairly.  Ultimately an impartial court of law should decide what the facts are, what’s true and what’s just.

It’s been asserted that some farmers irrigate without specific legal right. Your response?

            As I mentioned earlier, “water rights” are a legal matter that must be settled by a court.

            With improved local public planning oversight I think farm needs can be understood and met.  I sense broad support for the idea that the related legal issues should not drive anyone, including farmers, off their land.

Anything else you’d like to add?

            Only that I think that there is too much bluster surrounding this issue.  I would caution the press from taking sides or promoting “options.”

            Water is a plentiful, dynamic resource here that can be managed better with less politicization and “kabuki theater.”

            I would like Whatcom County to reform watershed planning by assuring that the watershed’s local (WRIA 1) Planning Unit can operate as it should, without agencies or special interests “taking sides.”

            With transparent watershed science and planning, we should all welcome the idea of fair-handed water rights adjudication.

            The last thing I want is a continuation of settlement attempts behind closed doors.

Ellen Baker, Glacier citizen (40 years) / Glacier Water District / Home number:  (360) 599-2544

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