‘Upstream’ book review: any hope for salmon?
The author of “The Mushroom Hunters” takes on the Pacific Northwest’s signature environmental issue.
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Eric Hirst guest writes again on water issues in Whatcom County.
Publisher note: We all use water every single day at home and in commerce and industry. By far, the greatest water user in Whatcom County is agriculture, especially during the critical summer months of very low streamflows. Eric Hirst has written extensively during the past year or two on water issues, including suggestions to meter most Whatcom water users, tax summertime water use, and promote greater efficiency of water use. Many in the community, especially some farmers, disagree with Hirst. Whatcom Family Farmers posted a page on its website in early November called ““What do farmers think about Eric Hirst and his ideas”.” Below is the farmer statement and Hirst’s response. You can judge, as we all have a stake in this issue. The Farmer’s website has moved, blocked or deleted their article responding to Eric. If it is restored, I will link to it. - John Servais
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Whatcom Family Farmers statements - with bold leads - and Hirst responses, EH: Shown in italics.
What do farmers think about Eric Hirst and his water ideas?
Eric Hirst has been getting a fair amount of attention lately. The Herald has been giving him an unprecedented amount of editorial space to air his ideas about water, metering and irrigation taxes. KGMI has also been giving him the opportunity to promote these ideas. Eric’s message is simple: We have a severe and growing water shortage. Farmers are huge users of limited water in the summer when water is most needed. We need to quantify what farmers use and we must impose an irrigation tax.
EH: I suggest a summertime tax on all water used in Whatcom County, including residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural uses.
What do farmers think of this?
We met with Eric on a number of occasions, carefully explaining the realities of the water situation in our community and why his proposals miss the primary issues and would prove harmful to the future of farming. We discovered that clear, plain facts make no impression on Eric. And that despite claiming to be an environmentalist, his agenda is strongly anti-farm and favors the conversion of farmland to development.
EH: The only “primary issues” farmers raised with me are relinquishment and the Annual Consumptive Quantity. I agree that both of these restrictions on agricultural water use should be updated. However, I have not heard a concrete proposal from farmers on how to modify these statutory requirements in a way that addresses other interests, especially Native American concerns about instream flows for fish and other wildlife.
What are these “clear, plain facts?” Most of my writing relies on data and analysis to better understand and explain issues. I generally provide footnotes so readers can see where I obtain data and results. I also offer my Excel workbooks to anyone who would like to check my work.
The facts that Eric doesn’t want to accept.
We have lots of water.
Eric says we have a severe and growing water shortage. This message resonated this summer when we experienced a drought and unusually warm temperatures.
The facts we presented Eric are that we operate on a massive aquifer that we share with Canada. Our water flows mostly south from Canada. Despite the use of water by about one million Canadian citizens and farmers, Environment Canada reports that our aquifer is more than fully recharged each winter. Eric talks a lot about low stream flows in our streams and rivers. That’s true, particularly in summer—as it has been well before non-native farmers showed up. Farmers draw most of their irrigation water from the ground and those who draw from the Nooksack or surface water want to transfer those rights to groundwater but have been stymied by the State. If all farmers drew all their irrigation water from the Nooksack alone, it would amount to about 1.6% of all the water in the river. We have lots of water, but that does not translate to access to the water for farming.
EH: The minimum amount of water that must remain in the Nooksack River to support salmon is not being met two-thirds of the days in summer. How do we square that fact with the farmers’ claim that “we have lots of water”?
I agree that the northern part of Whatcom County sits on a huge aquifer. I also agree that this aquifer might become a useful source of water for farmers and others.
As noted in my paper, “Does Whatcom County Have a Water-Supply Problem?”, withdrawing large amounts of water from the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer faces two problems – hydraulic connectivity and economics. Because aquifers and surface waters interact with each other, it can be challenging to determine whether a particular groundwater withdrawal (location, timing, volume and flowrate) will adversely affect streamflows and other groundwater withdrawals. Detailed computer modeling is needed to determine how groundwater withdrawal influences downstream surface flows.
A key obstacle to drilling wells and moving water is the cost of infrastructure (e.g., pumps and pipes) plus operations and maintenance costs. I found only one study of potential local projects, intended to transfer water from PUD #1 in Ferndale to either Lynden or the Bertrand Creek area. This study estimated the infrastructure costs at 0.2 to 0.6 cents/gallon. Is this a reasonable price to pay to replace surface water with groundwater?
EH: Please provide documentation of low streamflows “before non-native farmers showed up.”
EH: Data on Nooksack River flows at Ferndale and estimates of water use suggest that total summer water use is about 11% of summer flows; in August, water use amounts to 16% of river flow. Please explain the data and analysis that led to your 1.6% estimate.
EH: Our water supply/demand imbalance will worsen over time because of population growth and changes in key weather factors. North Cascade glacier mass declined by 25% over the past three decades. Summer flows in the Nooksack River declined by 27% between 1963 and 2003. Air temperatures are going up, increasing outdoor water use (e.g., for irrigation and watering lawns) and water temperatures are also increasing (fish need cool, clear water). Finally, summer precipitation is declining, which also increases outdoor water demand.
EH: “Stymied” by the state? Because of insufficient water, Ecology closed much of the Nooksack basin to further appropriation, either year-round or seasonally. Ecology took this step because flows in the river and its tributaries are insufficient to meet instream requirements and the senior water rights.
Farmers aren’t stealing water or using it illegally.
We made it clear to Eric that his frequent comments about illegal use of water by farmers and of water theft are flat out wrong. He was told by the lead hydrologist for this area that illegal or immoral use of water by farmers is essentially non-existent. But Eric persists in criminalizing farmers. Farmers need water rights in order to farm. The issue, as discussed above, is not whether or not there is enough water, but what rights the State will grant. Farmers for years have been applying for water rights and been told to use the water as if rights had been granted while the State sorts through the mess. Thirty years later, many are still waiting. But in the meantime are complying with the State’s requirements which this summer included shutting off water to a number of farmers. It’s discouraging to be doing the right thing and to have someone who knows the truth continue to make these kinds of accusations.
EH: This lead hydrologist did not make any such statement. However, Maia Bellon, Director of the WA State Dept. of Ecology, did say, in response to a question about illegal water use: “That is huge. We do need to have a plan.” Ecology has over 600 applications for water rights in Whatcom County, totaling 8 billion gallons a year (25% of current use); can we assume that these applicants are not now using water?
EH: Using words like “theft,” “immoral,” and “criminalizing,” none of which appear in any of my publications, does not encourage thoughtful discussion of these challenging issues. I urge the farmers to dial down the rhetoric and focus on issues, potential solutions, and compromises.
Farmers are conserving water, but are limited by outdated water laws.
Our family farmers have done much to conserve water. Dairies use far less than they used to and almost all berry farmers have put in micro-irrigation significantly improving water use efficiency. Eric says that taxing water is the only way to get farmers to conserve. Nonsense. Farmers have already invested in systems that provide up to 90% efficiency leaving little more to be gained. Farmers did not need a water tax to invest in water conservation.
It was carefully explained to Eric that our state’s water code discourages farmers from conserving. We have a relinquishment law that says if farmers (and farmers alone) don’t use their allotted water rights, those rights revert back to the state. So, if a farmer has the right to use 100,000 gallons, but by conservation can reduce that to 50,000, if he or she does not use the other 50,000 gallons they will lose the right to use that water in the future. Once lost, it is gone. It diminishes the value of the land and limits the options to apply unused water to other uses. We asked Eric to help us address this problem and make a real contribution to conserving water. Instead, he has chosen to continue to push his ideas which would prove counter productive.
EH: A tax on water use is one of many ways to encourage greater efficiency of water use. Water markets, public education, and government regulation could also help conserve scarce water supplies during the critical summer months.
EH: The 90% efficiency likely refers to lab tests conducted by the manufacturer. Without metered data, it is impossible to know how these systems operate in the field. Actual performance depends on the quality of system installation, maintenance, and day-to-day operations.
EH: I am glad to work with farmers and others to modify the relinquishment requirement. Passage of state legislation to allow such a change would likely require that farmers leave more water in the creeks and river and/or provide ecosystem services as mitigation for their greater flexibility and use of water. That is, there is no free lunch.
We know how much farmers are using without metering.
Eric keeps saying we don’t know how much farmers are using. Farmers use what their water rights allow. Metering would result in them making very sure they used all they were allowed, as again has been explained to Eric. If they don’t use all they are allowed, they stand to lose the right to that water. But, if they are conserving, where is this conserved water going? Some of it is going to improve in-stream flows. Many farmers stop irrigating during the peak of low stream flows because of harvests in July or early August. They use some of their excess water to recharge ground water near streams to improve flow in the streams. They are doing this proactively to improve fish and wildlife habitat. Why? It’s the right thing to do. Paying a tax on water use would discourage farmers from making the investments they have been in restoring stream flows, improving fish habitat and the environment.
EH: I have not been able to find a single instance of Ecology withdrawing some of a Whatcom farmer’s water right because of relinquishment. If such cases exist, please inform the public.
EH: I am pleased that farmers are pumping excess water to recharge groundwater to enhance instream flows. Are reports available that document these actions and show how much water (and when) is being used this way, and how much instream flows are improved by such actions?
EH: How would a modest water tax discourage farmers from investing? The tax proposed amounts to one-third of 1% (0.33%) of farmer revenue. Is this really a serious burden on farmers?
Creating a market for water will accelerate converting farmland to development.
Eric has been involved in lawsuits in the County relating to wells and water. We believe he is aware of the negative impact on farming of establishing water markets or water banks in the state, including in Kittitas County. A water market makes water available to the highest bidder. In Kittitas County farmers found themselves bidding against housing and commercial developers who are able and willing to pay more for the water than farmers can for growing food. The result is obvious—accelerated transition from farmland to development.
EH: The lawsuit against Whatcom County, to be decided by the WA Supreme Court, concerns rural wells and sprawl and has nothing to do with water markets and nothing to do with agricultural water use.
EH: I’m puzzled by the negative comments on water markets. I thought farmers are interested in markets. For the past several years, farmers have been participating in local projects on natural resources markets, including pilot projects near Lynden. Many farmers attended the Jan. 2015 seminar in Lynden on Whatcom Water Exchange?, cosponsored by Whatcom Farm Friends. The key speaker was a lawyer who works for local farm organizations; he spoke positively about the benefits of water markets. Finally, my sense is that farmers generally favor markets over government rules.
Cows and crops are better for the environment than concrete and cul-de-sacs.
Eric says he knows this. He knows our 100,000 acres of farmland filter rainwater much better than parking lots and streets. He knows farmland provides wildlife habitat and that farmers are going above and beyond regulations to protect water quality and improve the environment. Eric and Michael Lilliquist in 2008 wrote on the Futurewise website:
“Whatcom County is losing its rural areas to sprawl at an alarming rate —faster than any other county in Washington—and a lower population projection supports agricultural preservation. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that, between 1982 and 2003, an average of 1,200 acres a year of farms and forests were converted to urban uses. Worse, the pace of conversion is accelerating. We ought to focus on this problem, rather than accommodate ourselves to continual population growth.”
Eric was told clearly that our family farmers are not in a position to absorb the costs of an irrigation tax. Pressure is coming from multiple directions, mostly driven by so-called environmentalists who prefer their own agenda to the realities of the environmental catastrophe that massive loss of farmland to development means. Farmers, unlike others in business, don’t have the option of passing costs on to the consumer. The price of milk, berries and potatoes are set on global markets independent of local costs of farming. Our dairy farmers are facing a period of sharply reduced milk prices and berry farmers have been impacted by the unusual heat plus a strong US dollar that has resulted in massive imports of berries from China, Mexico, Serbia and Chile. Farmers facing false accusations, potential litigation and draconian new regulations in addition to very difficult market conditions are understandably frustrated by someone who continues in the face of clear facts to push unneeded new costs on farmers.
EH: I share farmer concerns about possible conversion of farmlands to residential and commercial development. I want to work with farmers and others to ensure a healthy future for farms and farmers. I believe hard work and compromise can lead to resolution of our water problems in a way that meets the needs of instream and out-of-stream users.
EH: Yes, the vast majority of Whatcom County agricultural output (probably more than 90%) leaves the county and is sold in national and international markets. Farmers in many other places face pressures, such as water scarcity and stricter environmental regulations. In what ways are Whatcom farmers at a competitive disadvantage with farmers in other regions and countries?
What do farmers think of Eric Hirst and his water ideas?
Eric says he is an environmentalist and wants to limit urban sprawl. Good. But his actions don’t match his good words. If Eric is successful in metering, establishing a water market and taxing farmers he will help accelerate the loss of farming and farmland. It’s frustrating after spending the time with him to make this reality very clear, he insists on promoting his damaging agenda. Actions speak louder than words and farmers are forced to conclude that Eric is an anti-farm activist who is actively promoting the very development he says he opposes.
EH: My bottom line is discouragement. I have made many, many attempts to meet with farmers, with little success. Most ignored my emails and phone calls. Most of the remainder said they were too busy or did not want to meet with me. Only four farmers met to talk with me about these issues.
I raised many questions about the three opinion pieces that farmers wrote for the Bellingham Herald, along the lines of my comments and questions on this webpage. Mostly, I sought documentation and clarification of statements that puzzled me or seemed incorrect. I have yet to receive a substantive response to any of these questions.
I remain committed to dialogue on these complicated water issues. Resolution of these issues requires candid discussion, backed by data and analysis, and willingness to compromise. I am eager to see whether and how the farmers respond these comments and questions.