Lecture on County Water Issues Draws Crowd

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Fri, Dec 06, 2013, 11:03 pm  //  Wendy Harris

Timing is everything, and no where is this more evident than in Whatcom County’s water supply and demand problems.  We have a surplus of water in the winter months when demand is the lowest, while the supply of water dries up in the warmer summer months when the demand is highest.  

This is a problem requiring comprehensive water planning, but according to local resident, attorney and WWU professor Jean Melious, that is exactly what we are lacking.  Armed with an impressive mound of evidence, the result of countless hours of research, Jean (who represents several local clients, including myself) was able to convince the Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board that Whatcom County was failing to protect rural character because it did not have plans in place that protect water quality and water quantity.

The Hearings Board decision has generated attention locally, and around the state, because of its potential impacts on exempt wells.  This accounted for a diverse standing-room only crowd attending the lecture given by Jean this Thursday afternoon at WWU.  The lecture was attended by students, faculty, government staff, environmentalists, and Tea Party members.  Jean’s lecture focused on uncontroversial basics of science and law.

She emphasized that state law was largely controlling over the matter of water rights, leaving little local autonomy over water allocation issues.  Most water basins in Whatcom County are closed to new withdrawals, either full time, or seasonally, during the high demand and low supply summer months. Washington follows a “first in right, first in time” rule, entitling those with senior water rights to use water before those who hold junior water rights.  

Washington water laws impact both surface water and ground water. Surface water may be in the form of water withdrawal, or in the form of “in stream flows,” which is the obligation to keep water in the stream at a sufficient quantity to protect fish and habitat.  Many local streams rely upon groundwater to maintain water flow, particularly in the summer.  This reflects the generally shallow groundwater reservoirs in Whatcom County.  And where surface water and ground water are in hydraulic continuity, a likely situation where there are shallow reservoirs, groundwater withdrawal could be restricted to protect senior surface water rights.

Traditionally, this was not something that rural residents worried about because Washington State provides for ground well exemptions. However, the exemption is from obtaining a permit.  It is not an exemption from water priority rights. And the Hearings Board noted that this was as true for exempt wells as for other types of ground water.  This challenges assumptions by some that exempt wells provide a special type of protected water right.  

This decision could have a big impact on Whatcom County, where 2/3 of our farmers lack the legal right to the water they use for irrigation and other crop needs.  Although there is potential for an additional 34,000 lots in the rural county, before accounting for new growth that could be allocated as part of the 2016 Comprehensive Plan update, the county has failed to engage in water planning efforts for the last 13 years.

The county may no longer plan for rural growth as if water quality and quantity are of little concern.  Instead, the county must allocate its water to meet current and future needs. The Hearings Board noted a number of ways that the county could achieve this goal. It could limit growth in areas with water limitation. It could direct growth from rural areas back to the urban areas. It could reduce density or the intensity of water use activities. It could limit impervious surface to maximize stream recharge, impose low impact development standards and/or water conservation efforts. And it could develop mitigation options.

These types of smart growth techniques would reduce the possibility of restrictions on exempt wells.  Moreover, even if this were to occur, it would affect only new exempt wells, while existing exempt wells would not be impacted.  This has not prevented some amount of hysteria from the Tea Party, which claims that rural property owners will be stripped of water, leaving property of little use and value.   

Planning for our future requires moving beyond invalid fears, determining our water supply based on the principles of sound science, and drafting a plan that complies with the state’s legal requirements.  Jean, her clients and concerned county residents will be monitoring this process closely to make sure the county gets it right.

Abe Jacobson  //  Sat, Dec 07, 2013, 9:13 am

Thank you for participating as a litigant in the action before the Board. This is a “two-by-four” that hopefully will motivate the County to perform long-forgotten planning. Over the long haul, this is the sort of oversight that will actually save agriculture in Whatcom County.

It was interesting to see a carefully rehearsed, but bogus, line tried out on Melious during the questions-and-answers:

  “It’s really the City of Bellingham you should be after for water waste,
  because after treatment their effluent just goes out into the bay.
  The rural summer water use, in contrast, is reused because
  it percolates back into the ground after it is applied to the ground.”

I was relieved that Melious, trained as an attorney, still had the command of basic science/engineering facts in the matter, and could immediately rejoin with the “e word”: evapotranspiration. This apparently had not been considered by the folks who had posed the “gotcha” question. Oh, that…

You see lots of this kind of selective reasoning in the climate-change-denial scene, too.

Best wishes,
Abe Jacobson

Jean Melious  //  Sun, Dec 08, 2013, 7:54 pm

Why, thanks, Wendy and Abe.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever spoken to a broader range of folks—from experts in the field (Bob Mitchell, John McLaughlin, Clare Fogelsong) to college freshman, to everybody in between.  And, of course, the loyal opposition, lead by prominent Tea Party spokespeople Greg and Karen Brown.

The claim that Abe refers to—that all water from residential wells is returned to groundwater— is a meme out in the County and in rural areas across the state.  (I first came across it in a statement by the Well Drillers’ Association—imagine that!).

I’ve been spending quality time with the Lower Nooksack Water Budget (Bandaragoda, C., J. Greenberg, M. Dumas and P. Gill, (eds). Lower Nooksack Water Budget, Whatcom County, WA: WRIA 1 Joint Board (2102).  + Link and Reports/Water Quantity/LNWB/wria1_waterbudget_low_20121231.pdf

My answer to Greg’s question was based on the Water Budget, which makes very conservative estimates about rural residential water use. It assumes that rural households use less water than Bellingham households, and it estimates that 50% of the water used is returned to the system.  That’s based on 85% consumptive use outdoors (that is, water that’s used and not returned to the system) and 15% consumptive use from indoor water use. 

The Water Budget shows that the vast majority of water use occurs in the summer, when people water their yards and plants.  That water is primarily taken up by plants (its intended purpose) or evaporates.  Nonetheless, the meme that that there’s no consumptive water use from residential development is still out there.
That’s because it is the theory that is necessary to support the massive number of new houses that can be built outside of cities, in Rural and Agricultural lands.

As I mentioned during my talk, if not one person were born in or moved into any city in Whatcom County between now and 2029, enough new houses could be built for everybody on Rural and Ag land.  That’s how much rural sprawl the County has planned for.

People who are interested in water might keep an eye on this issue.  The County is currently proposing to “plan” for large increases in Urban Growth Areas WITHOUT any decrease in the growth that will be allowed in Rural and Ag areas.  That means that the County is going to “plan” for sprawl.  And for development in areas where new houses will take water from farms and fish.  According to the Growth Management Act, the County’s plan ought to protect water quality and quantity, but apparently that’s not what the people of Whatcom County want.

Or is it?

Wendy Harris  //  Tue, Dec 10, 2013, 12:47 am

Here is an update on this issue.  King 5 has a story and video on this issue that plays into the exaggerated fears about exempt wells. 
+ Link

Lecture on County Water Issues Draws Crowd

Fri, Dec 06, 2013, 11:03 pm  //  Wendy Harris

The county will be required to consider water quality and water quantity when planning rural growth.

3 comments; last on Dec 10, 2013

Our Water - War or Pieces?

Fri, May 24, 2013, 12:18 am  //  Guest writer

Marian Beddill provides a general guide for the public, with a look at the history of water rights in Washington state.

4 comments; last on May 26, 2013

Village Books

In historic Fairhaven. Take Exit 250 from I-5.

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Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 6:37 am  //  Guest writer

Guest writer Shane Roth writes in favor of the reconveyance of Lake Whatcom land back to the county.

1 comments; last on Mar 11, 2013

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A proposed amendment to the Lake Whatcom watershed moratorium will increase water quality degradation

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Sun, Jan 06, 2013, 11:49 pm  //  Wendy Harris

Watch the Whatcom County Council wiggle its way out of the latest round of GMA compliance requirements for Lake Whatcom

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A City staff memo on the Bloedel dock closure reads more like an advocacy brief


Squalicum Mountain development gets favors from county

Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 3:03 pm  //  Guest writer

No EIS - no real county planning concern about developing Squalicum Mountain and degrading Lake Whatcom water even further.


Lake regulations will increase development

Mon, Nov 14, 2011, 11:07 am  //  Wendy Harris

Proposed new storm water regulations will increase Lake Whatcom development. Hearing this Thursday.

1 comments; last on Nov 14, 2011

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Sun, Nov 06, 2011, 10:48 pm  //  Wendy Harris

Important events concerning the Lake occurred during the election with little comment from the public, the candidates or the media.

16 comments; last on Nov 10, 2011

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Wed, Oct 19, 2011, 12:23 pm  //  Guest writer

Sue Taylor guest writes this perspective on WCV and their alliance with the Dan Pike for mayor campaign.

16 comments; last on Oct 23, 2011

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Fri, Jul 22, 2011, 6:35 am  //  Wendy Harris

A pro-active, extremely cost effective solution for protecting Lake Whatcom exists!

3 comments; last on Jul 22, 2011

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Mon, Jul 18, 2011, 9:03 pm  //  Riley Sweeney

The Political Junkie interviews Christina Maginnis

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Just An Insignificant Little Road

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4 comments; last on Feb 02, 2009

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12 comments; last on Jan 02, 2009

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1 comments; last on Oct 01, 2008

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Deja vu All Over Again

Mon, Jun 30, 2008, 2:33 am  //  g.h.kirsch

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2 comments; last on Jul 05, 2008

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I received a Notice of Complete Application for the construction of an impervious trail through the center of a parcel of forested land acquired with funds collected for…

5 comments; last on Jul 01, 2008

City hall misleading on geese kill plans

Fri, Jun 20, 2008, 11:26 am  //  Guest writer

by Wendy Harris |
Wendy is a resident of Silver Beach on the north side of Lake Whatcom. This is her second guest writer article - and follows…


Who’ll Stop the Raid

Mon, Jun 16, 2008, 10:33 am  //  g.h.kirsch

While the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District races to expand its infrastructure to serve sprawling development on the north shore of the lake, the King County Superior…

2 comments; last on Jun 18, 2008

Kill Lawns, Not Geese

Sun, Jun 15, 2008, 12:17 pm  //  Guest writer

By Wendy Harris
Wendy is a resident of Silver Beach on the north side of Lake Whatcom. She is an active citizen. Today she is our first guest writer.…

9 comments; last on Jul 31, 2008

THE LAKE & ECOLOGY; Can’t Have One Without The Other

Mon, May 26, 2008, 8:51 pm  //  g.h.kirsch

Why all the hubbub about building moratoria in the Lake Whatcom watershed? You can't build or subdivide without adequate water, and the entire watershed is closed to new…

1 comments; last on Jun 01, 2008

Saving the Lake

Tue, May 20, 2008, 12:08 am  //  g.h.kirsch

Another important step towards dealing with the pollution of Lake Whatcom was taken tonight. The mayor and city council have thrown down the gauntlet to Pete Kremen and…

14 comments; last on Jun 01, 2008

Casting Our Lots in the Lake Whatcom Watershed

Fri, Apr 04, 2008, 10:42 am  //  Tom Pratum

In early February, I and several other folks met with Whatcom County Parks director Mike McFarlane to ask some questions about the proposed reconveyance of Forest Board…

3 comments; last on Sep 25, 2008

Herald editorial on Lake Whatcom land deal

Sun, Sep 30, 2007, 9:03 pm  //  John Servais

The Bellingham Herald editorial today is excellent. It raises the basic questions about the newly proposed Lake Whatcom land reconveyance deal to make a park on the very…


Lake Whatcom land deal; “technicality” loses Herald’s letters

Tue, Sep 25, 2007, 9:25 pm  //  John Servais

Tom Pratum has some good information on the proposed - and still mostly secret - Lake Whatcom land reconveyance plan. He posted it on the North Cascades Audubon…


My posts here were accurate

Sat, Sep 22, 2007, 9:40 pm  //  John Servais

The October surprise is a week early. Today's Herald has the carefully managed news of the land swap that John Watts alerted us to on Sep 11 -…


No denials in land swap accusation

Wed, Sep 12, 2007, 10:12 pm  //  John Servais

Rather than answer several emails individually, this post will clarify a couple things. First, why is yesterday's post by John Watts that I praised any different from his…


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Re: Chamber of Commerce insert in today’s Bellingham Herald

Mon, May 24, 2004, 6:22 pm  //  John Servais

The initiative is 'remove motor boats', not 'remove boats' from Lake Whatcom. Our Chamber of Commerce just lies in print to achieve their goal of defeating the initiative.


Benzene in Lake Whatcom water

Fri, Feb 13, 2004, 7:48 pm  //  John Servais

We see 1/100 of one part per billion or less of benzene to water during most of the year 2000 and into the spring of 2001. Then in…


Not political conservative but real conservative

Thu, Feb 12, 2004, 7:52 pm  //  John Servais

Motor boats off Lake Whatcom? What was that apology from City Senior Planner Chris Spens at the city council on Monday? El-bull-in-china-shop Chris got the word from el…


Mercury, anyone?

Mon, Feb 09, 2004, 7:57 pm  //  John Servais

We have mercury contamination all over our county. That we know. Lake Whatcom and Bellingham Bay. Georgia Pacific's chlorine plant leaked mercury for about 35 years and neither…


Lack of environmental enforcement

Sun, Nov 23, 2003, 3:51 pm  //  John Servais

of some local developers is plain to see in this photo essay at the Lake Whatcom website. The WA Dept of Ecology has enforcement folks tooling around in…


Very quietly, more and more liberals are

Mon, Oct 13, 2003, 6:38 pm  //  John Servais

telling me they are voting for Brett Bonner for mayor. Some very prominent ones - but they are not going public. Why not? Fear of retaliation.

Why are they…


Mayoral Debate

Wed, Oct 08, 2003, 6:51 pm  //  John Servais

The two differed strongly on several issues. The differences between them are becoming more apparent and this should continue for the next two weeks.

Brett continues to develop his…


Remember the ‘Truth Squad’?

Sun, Oct 05, 2003, 7:12 pm  //  John Servais

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The forums are being broadcast live on KGMI radio, 790 AM.…


A stand must be taken to protect water quality

Wed, Jun 25, 2003, 5:07 pm  //  John Servais

Posted here because the Bellingham Herald has now ignored this for two days. Of very high importance to Bellingham - and with significant developments.

On Monday evening, the Bellingham…


The system does not work when there are no checks on state agencies

Fri, Jun 13, 2003, 12:20 pm  //  John Servais

St. Joe's Hospital will probably be facing fines for venting toxic gas into the construction area of their new addition. Our Bellingham Herald has not reported a bit…


City Council support for Clean Water Alliance

Tue, May 13, 2003, 6:00 pm  //  John Servais

The Bellingham City Council last night voted 5-2 to support the Clean Water Alliance legal action against Whatcom County's designation of Sudden Valley as an Urban Growth Area…


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Mon, May 12, 2003, 3:15 pm  //  John Servais

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