Lecture on County Water Issues Draws Crowd


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.

About Wendy Harris

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 31, 2008

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Dec 07, 2013

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

Dec 08, 2013

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).  http://wria1project.whatcomcounty.org/uploads/PDF/Studies 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

Dec 10, 2013

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. 

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