Wrapping Up the Local Grange Water Forums

Over the past four months, Larry Helm facilitated through the sponsorship of the Rome Grange to pull together four water forums, featuring a wide sector of people connected to water usage, planning and protection.  The Thursday, July 10th Water Woes IV forum was moderated by, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws. The forum panel featured: Ed Block (Agriculture), Dave Olson (Water Systems Manager), GI James (Lummi Tribal Spokesman), and Skip Richards (Non-government Water Resource Caucus). City of Bellingham – Mayor Kelli Linville was unable to attend at the last-minute due to illness.

This is a brief write-up taken from the notes I took of highlighted comments made by the panelists. In addition it is helpful to watch the Water Woes IV video (produced and provided by Whatcom Works) and also read the article published in the Cascadia Weekly on the same subject.

Ed Block (Ag District Coalition): Farmers are uncertain about water leases.  They support formation of a Water Improvement District (WID). Mr. Block stated that they do not intend that the WID’s are to be a big stick for local farmers. He stated that they would be self-controlled by land owners within the WID, based on percentages of land owned. The WID would be self funded and self taxed. The WID’s would address water, drainage and flood management issues. The farmers are part of the community and understand what’s involved. They want to work towards solutions. Mr. Block publicly stated that he’s not an expert on tribal treaty rights and what the legalities of it are, but farmers do understand that the local Tribes want to work with the Federal Government on this issue. He ended by saying, “the farmers goal is to show respect and coöperate with the Tribes and all involved to work towards achievable solutions.”

Dave Olson (Water Systems Management / a private enterprise): Mr. Olson contracts with people on non-government water systems, rural potable water systems and small commercial applications; including small farms. There are 60,000 connections bringing communities and farms together for safe water. Whatcom County’s water systems infrastructure are getting old and many are in need of repairs. Today, most of these rural systems are run by volunteers without much help from members who have an expectation that they will have access to water. Often their meetings are scantily attended unless there’s no water and then everyone shows up. As volunteer water groups they work to keep water service rates affordable, but the business is getting complicated. There are a lot more regulatory mandates to discuss, but their top priority is to deliver safe, reliable and sustainable water. Mr. Olson talked about the need to educate the person about their responsibility to this process. He addressed the amount of time needed to keep up with everything that’s happening with local water issues and the lack of time and experienced rural water groups is growing…that is a big issue! Dealing with water problems after the fact is a problem in itself, because then it is generally too late. Also briefly discussed was the nitrate contamination in North Whatcom County and their ability to work with the water basins with groups such as the Ag Districts and WID’s. The rural property owners, like everyone else want to live and work together in harmony.

G.I. James (Lummi Tribal Spokesperson): The Tribes look at the water issue differently than most. Thiers is a matter of daily needs and their livelihoods. Nobody is addressing the demands for and quantifying water rights with population numbers. And, when they are it is only the legal side, not the illegal side of water use (non-permitted water usage v. permitted usage). The Tribes concern is the ability for fish to make it up the streams and rivers for spawning. Mr. James reflected on the different ways that the Tribes look for answers compared to the Non-Tribe; the Native American’s pick their goal and how to get there, tribal v. non-tribal needs. The Tribes are concerned with the Non-Tribal groups fixation on developing “the process” first and then setting up goals. They cannot seem to get past, what does the process look like? The answers lie within water resource inventories which were started in 1988.  Mr. James confirmed that the Tribes are frustrated by; “What have we achieved?” It’s a great trip that seems to go nowhere. Canada and Native American goals were to rebuild the fish runs in three-steps and take ten-years to accomplish it. It’s now been almost thirty-years with no measurable increase in the rebuilding of the Chinook runs. The agencies convinced themselves that if they just got more entities involved regionally that they could work this out. When that didn’t work they created another agency called the Puget Sound Partnership, because bigger-was-better! They are still no closer to fixing the problem. One of the complications for the Tribes is their need to work on a Government-to-Government committee for negotiations. They also believe that they need smaller groups, formed with government leaders to decide the issues and work out the solutions. But, because of the Federal Governments inability, or failure to deal with this issue, the Tribes have had to deal with the State. The Tribe’s would prefer to work with the Federal Government on these issues, because legally that’s how the Treaty of Point Elliott, is set up.

Skip Richards (Non-government Water Resource Caucus): Skip began by referring to the “Winters Doctrine,” as a primary starting point. The “Winters Doctrine” was settled nine-years before Washington State water law. Mr. Richards reminded the audience that the 1974 “Boldt Decision,” woke up the Fisher’s, but the rest of the population largely ignored the ramifications of the Boldt judgment and how it affected everyone’s future water rights and land usage. The Washington State Legislature passed the Water Management Plan and Whatcom County began down that road in 2005 when they implemented the Water Resource Inventory Areas, of which Whatcom County (and other areas) live in what is known as WRIA1. The Planning Unit’s input in the process was stopped in 2009 and was restarted in December of 2013. Mr. Richards reminded the audience that many properties have water leases. The problem with water leases is that they expire. He also reminded the audience of what COB Councilman Michael Lilliquist said:

We are happy to provide water for the rural communities, but it will come with conditions set forth by the City of Bellingham. ~ Michael Lilliquist – Bellingham City Council.

Mr. Richards also addressed the need to change “Use it-or-Lose it,” as a policy for Washington State standards. It actually discourages rural property owners and farmers from conserving water usage on land that isn’t currently being farmed or otherwise. The “Use it-or-Lose it” is bad policy and could be changed by the WA State Legislature now. Mr. Richards astutely pointed out that the Joint Board is a moving target because politicians come-and-go with election cycles. The Joint Board is drowning us in rules and regulations that create chaos. In closing Mr. Richards said; “The water rights issue is a shared sacrifice, and must be a shared decision-making process. Everyone involved needs to step up, get involved and pay attention.” He agreed with G.I. James of the need for everyone to get together, decide, and set goals to deliver safe, reliable and sustainable water to our residents.

The evenings forum wrapped-up with Tom Loranger (Manager of the Water Resources Dept. for the Washington State Department of Ecology): The Agri-business is a $10 billion dollar concern for Washington State, comprising mostly in berries, dairies, livestock, fishing and wineries. Washington State is not running out of water. Washington State has run out of water rights. Water rights have been in negotiation since 1949, not to interfere with fishing and instream flows. When you look at water overall on an annualized basis there is no problem whatsoever, but there are tiny sectors of the calendar year when it can affect water levels. It is these small peak periods that need to be dealt with. He spoke briefly about past and current water rights issues and the State’s attempt to provide solutions.

The Columbia River initiative (2002-2005).

A framework for issuing new water rights from the Columbia River, while simultaneously improving stream flows for fish populations.

  • An executive-request bill for lawmakers to consider during the 2005 legislative session.
  • Capital and operating budget requests of $79 million over the next 10 years to secure water and to conduct feasibility evaluation of new off-channel storage projects.
  • Cooperative agreements with federal and local partners to obtain water.
  • Draft rule language to implement the program.

The Yakima Basin initiative.

A program to recognize that a major portion of infrastructure lies within or abuts a sensitive natural systems, primarily the Naches River, and floodplain: riparian areas; fish habitat; wetlands; and watershed. These areas are valuable public resources that may need protection and preservation. The Partnership has identified goals and objectives for infrastructure management and maintenance. Proposed projects that came from these goals and objectives have been either implemented or are in the development stages.

A new idea the State has pursued is Water Banking and mitigation.

It is a way to use the market to make water available for new uses, such as increasing stream flows and providing water for development.  In 2003 legislation was passed to allow banking in the Yakima basin using the state Trust Water program.  During the 2009 legislative session Chapter RCW 90.42 was amended to clarify that this tool is available to use for banking statewide.  Most of the banking in our state uses the State Trust Water program as the vault to hold water so that it does not relinquish.

Water banking is an institutional mechanism used to facilitate the legal transfer and market exchange of various types of surface, groundwater, and storage entitlements. (This changes water from a right to a commodity – my words)

The Department of Ecology (DOE) is working with Skagit County to develop a water exchange program (water banking/mitigation) and have hired staff to help develop the program. Skagit County sued the DOE because of their water modeling. The effect of the DOE water modeling were unattainable instream water flows on the Swinomish River. This decsion decimated property values as  a moratorium was set that denied people a permit to drill a water well. Skagit County residents exempt well water rights were taken away from them.

Mr. Loranger reminded the audience that Washington State works under the model, 1st in Time – 1st in Right.

The waters of Washington State collectively belong to the public and cannot be owned by any one person or group.

Mr. Loranger presented the question: “Private Wells – are they truly in the publics interest?” Skagit County is in big trouble and the DOE is trying to help them. There has not been a lot of collaboration between the interested parties and this has made the process a challenging environment to work within. There is the over-riding existence of public concern in Whatcom County from the Hirst, Harris, Brakke, Stalheim and Futurewise v. Whatcom County. This case is going straight to the Washington State Court of Appeals. The outcome of this case will have wide implications on the future of rural Whatcom County land use, both for people, farmers and industry.

Mr. Loranger went on to talk about how in 2011 the Lummi Nation petitioned the Federal Government to adjudicate their water rights issue. No one knows how, or even if the Federal Government will hear this case. He went on to comment on how much money will be spent for salmon and habitat restoration projects, while wrapping it up with the most recent judgment on Rader Farms for converting pasture land to berry farmed land. He stated that the Rader Farm decision came down to annual consumptive quantity (ACQ) of water usage from pasture use to berry use. The DOE went over the past five-years to compare ACQ to make their decision; a decision which caused Rader Farms to lose the use of their property for productive farming.

Mr. Loranger closed with these words of optimism:

“ Water rights are a big issue. We have no answers but we’re working on it.”

~ Kris Halterman


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  1. Lorraine Newmen

    Thank you for writing a concise report on the water forum. These forums contained alot of information for all of us to digest. Another big thank you to the Granges and all who worked to bring these forums to the community. We all need to understand water issues in Whatcom County better.

  2. Lorraine Newmen

    On another note, I read the snarky report done in the Cascadia Weekly. My suggestion to the editors of the Cascadia is that if they want resolutions, they should try to play nicer in the sand box. No one wants to negotiate with a negative Nel.

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