Future Prospects for Whatcom County Water Supply

Whatcom County has plenty of water in winter, when people need it least. But in summer, when demand for water is at its peak, it is often in short supply.

Whatcom County has plenty of water in winter, when people need it least. But in summer, when demand for water is at its peak, it is often in short supply.


Farmers need water for crops and cattle. City-dwellers want water for yards, gardens and kiddie pools. Salmon need streams with enough cold, clear water to enable them to spawn and survive for another generation. And the two Native American nations have treaty-guaranteed fishing rights and are determined to see that the fish don’t get shortchanged.

To make matters worse, summer water supply is likely to go down in the years ahead, while demand increases. Specifically:

  • Various environmental factors that affect Whatcom County summer supply – streamflows, water temperatures, air temperatures, and rainfall – are all trending in negative directions. That is, the historical record shows slow, small, erratic declines in supply.
  • Less rainfall and higher air temperatures combined with population growth suggest increases in human water uses during the summer, especially for irrigation. .
  • Simple projections of the historical record over the next 20 years show that these trends will likely get worse for both people and the environment.
  • The state Dept. of Ecology and/or Whatcom County should develop and apply methods to estimate future water supplies and consumption over the next few decades.

Read Eric’s full scenario on our future county water situation in this pdf file.

About Eric Hirst

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jul 23, 2015

Eric Hirst has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, spent 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and retired to Bellingham 18 years ago. He [...]

Comments by Readers

Jay Markarian

Feb 19, 2017

In review of Dr. Hirst’s presentations I see  a “science for the masses” technique that focuses on supporting a predeterimed outcome and or supporting an agenda.  As an exampe the graph of Nooksack river flows and its trends are self serving and generally lacking in scientific approach.  Statistics, when taken out of contentex and or with a limited data sets can yield false results.  The use of  data in the graphic is from a limited slice of time and bares no dicussion as to what a normal range of river flows would be.  In more recent years, influence of extremely hot/dry summers have an had an impact in lower river levels but is that normal in the bigger picture.  Does the historical record allow for periods of weather extremes, of course it does.  Local residents have noted these record high temperatures and dry spells since 2013   In this last year of record rains and cold fall and winter would suggest we are returning to the normal Whatcom county weather pattern.  Longer historical data would support that we are within normal ranges.   As an illustration let me point out the snow falls in Boston MA where just a few years ago 110 inches of snow fell in 6 weeks, a 1 in 25,000 year event or record snows in Baltimore MD with 65 inches in 2 weeks.  Washington DC and Maryland had not seen these snows since the 1700’s when Georage Washington and Thomas Jefferson both noted a yard of snow in their respective diaries.   Neither case suggested the ice age was coming back.  Fast forward to the last few years where CA, Arizona and Utah lakes were dangerously low, farm lands was not irrigated and cattle were being sold off to keep them from dieing. I saw the impact of drought in Lake Powell, Lake Shasta and the abandon crop lands of CA.  Then record snow packs of 2017 brings the water levels in Lakes back (along with flooding).   The alarmist presentations with jaded interpertation of weather trends and unsupported projections detract from the real message of responsible resource management, a very valid matter.  The term “simple projections” used by Dr Hirst are in fact not so simple, they push the science of climatology, oceanography and hydrology to the limit which is why researchers get thier PhD’s in such matters.   I can say that in my own water association that the past 25 years of water table monitoring reveals no change water levels, a robust resource and at the same time water levels in wells on the Nooksack Valley floor have dropped, in some cases 100 feet.  So what exactly is the problem, where is it and whats the solution.  In short, water is a no joke problem and focusing on personal agendas with misinformation as if the sky is falling does not help.  Those residents out in the County return their water back to the ground as opposed to water usage in the City which makes its way to the Bay.   So why the restriction on new private wells ?  Is the issue real or frabicated or a bit of both.  You can’t open your doors as a Sancturay City and encourage an influx of undocumented aliens while carrying on dialogue about no growth, populations denisty issues and restricting access to water.  There is nothing simple about this.


Eric Hirst

Feb 20, 2017

Jay makes an important point about a “limited slice of time” over which to conduct analyses that offer glimpses of a possible future with lower water supplies and greater water demand. But Jay offers no suggestion on how long that time period should be. And he ignores the limited historical record for most of the important variables.

 I agree with Jay about the importance of “responsible resources management” and believe that water is, perhaps, our most important resource. One of the key points of my article is the lack of attention our government agencies (especially the state Dept. of Ecology and Whatcom County) pay to issues of water supply and demand and how they might evolve over time as population grows and the weather becomes increasingly unfavorable. Jay offers no guidance here.

 Finally, Jay mentions the importance of “climatology, oceanography and hydrology.” I suggest he (and others) read the very interesting research conducted by WWU professor Bob Mitchell and his graduate students on these topics. These research projects, based on much more sophisticated and complicated methods than mine, reach the same conclusions about diminishing water supplies.

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