Water is Valuable

Duuhhh! Try doing without it. Marian Beddill provides an overview of our rural Whatcom County water situation and the efforts to find fair solutions.

Duuhhh! Try doing without it. Marian Beddill provides an overview of our rural Whatcom County water situation and the efforts to find fair solutions.

• Topics: Whatcom County, Environment,

Marian Beddill writes this guest article. She is a retired civil engineer and has been deeply involved in the water issues and cleanup of Lake Whatcom for over 15 years, and was part of the citizen team who launched the WRIA1 Planning Unit.”

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Water is valuable. But 99% of us pay no attention to that. You turn on your faucet, and you get “your” water, as much as you need. Winter & Summer.

Ah! You must live in a Washington State city, or in an area served by a water-utility, and you pay them to deliver your water to you through their pipes. Note an important distinction: you are NOT really buying water - you are paying the delivery-service to send it to you in their pipes.

So where and how do THEY get the water that they send to you? After all, nature’s water in the rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers of Washington State, belongs “to the people”, and is protected and managed by the State. A water-utility, even for a city as big as Bellingham or Seattle, has to get permission of the State to grab water from the natural sources. They have to be granted a “water-right”. And that rights permit specifies where they can take it from, and how much, and maybe even when (worrying especially about the dry season). We’ll likely agree that’s a good idea.

How about the people who live out in the country, and do not have a water utility to serve them. Well, (and pardon the pun) they just drill or dig a well, and take water from the supply down there. Or sit a pump and pipe on the riverbank or behind a little dam in a creek, and suck it from the flow. Simple enough. So what’s the problem here? Well, they may not have been given “a right” to take that public resource. Same way that nobody can, for example, cut and haul a tree from a public park - it belongs to the public.

And, easy to visualize for the example of the creek—how many folks can take their water from the creek? Ohh! Not a whole lot! They might take it all, and dry up the creek so that folks downstream don’t have any water. That’s a basic reason that the State set up the administrative system of applications for—and the granting of—a right to take water from a public place. You gotta ask the State, and they have to say: “OKAY – you can take water from that place, and only this much.” You apply for, and have a water right granted. Who runs this rights-management program is the WA Dept of Ecology (“DoE”).

That sounds good, so— what’s the problem? Simple to explain, but maybe not easy to fix. Short answer, the DoE in recent years, has not been denying or issuing many of the rights applied for. We’ve historically had abundant water (in most places in Whatcom), and had limited government funds to run that activity. So far, there have not been serious conflicts between water users or between utilities, but as growth happens, that is sure to happen. Many of us think we should act NOW, to polish up the water-rights system, before a big fight happens.

I am aware of two basic things that ought to be done. 1) Be sure we have a good idea of the amounts of water that is out there, in all the places and through all the seasons—and 2) stop people from “stealing it” if they don’t have a “water-right” (a permit), but if they apply, and there will be water available (at their place and time of need), give them a proper permit.

All that will take is – technical studies of the flow, everywhere in our watersheds of the Nooksack River and the other creeks, all year long, and adjusted for climate change – plus having the staff of the DoE match the requests (from households, business, industry and agriculture) to the supply, so they can properly issue a certified right. Oh yeah! And maybe some water-cops to find the illegal users and issue citations and shut down their taking of public water.

Sounds pretty simple, huh?—just takes State funds. Well - there’s one more player in the game. You know that about 200 or 300 years ago, we newcomers grabbed the lands and waters here from the First Nations peoples (the Indians) who had lived here and used the water “since time immemorial”. But then a Federal settlement (a truce) on land and water was done - one part of which said (the language here is illustrative, not the legal terms) that the First-Nations have first rights to the water that is needed to keep on fishing for half of the salmon - since that is an essential part of their life and culture. Well, yeah, that sounds right, and is the proper thing to do.

So, how much water has to be provided, to meet that “usual and accustomed” fishing need? Ooops. nobody knows (except maybe the First Nations people, and so far – in 2014—they have not yet told us late-comers how much that is.)

There you have it. Learn how much water there is - and how much the First Nations need - then divide up the remaining water-rights among everybody else - keeping good records that match the real world. And be sure that everybody is following the rules. This just takes staff and budgets, plus the will to do it for everybody’s fair benefit.

How will you help?

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About Marian Beddill

Citizen Journalist • Fairhaven area of Bellingham • Member since Jan 16, 2008

My bio is complex, with various sections. There are two public data-places for it - my website cited in this Profile - and my published autobiography (from youth to my [...]

Comments by Readers

Barbara Perry

Jan 07, 2015

Marian,  Your article is clear in that Washington Citizens own their water.  When talking with you this morning in our phone conversation, you mentioned that the City of Bellingham has some water from the Upper/middle Nooksack River pumped into Lake Whatcom.  That was an historic agreement from when the old Georgia Pacific needed more water than Lake Whatcom had so water from the Nooksack was added to the lake.  Maybe I am jumping the gun, sorry if so, but you mentioned being concerned that the river water may not be monitored well enough.  If this is so, who would we write to about how Lake Whatcom / Nooksack water is monitored.  That seems like something we citizens who drink the water would want to know, especially since hearing the recent KOMO video about the ground water being polluted by nitrates from cattle.  Should/ or can we write to someone about this issue so that our drinking water is not too polluted to safely drink.

Are you planning on writing more articles as this water topic is part of the new water wars to come,  not just in Whatcom, but world wide.  I like your writing is clear and hope you can help us keep the issue clear.


Marian Beddill

Jan 07, 2015

Barbara; You wrote: “...water from the Upper/middle Nooksack River pumped into Lake Whatcom…”

Not quite precise. It’s from the upper reach of the Middle Fork. And it is not pumped - just gravity flow. 

My concern on water-quality was regarding very little pollutant sampling done specifically in the Middle Fork, since the diverted flow goes into the Lake Whatcom Reservoir (its’ official name since 1993). The ground water being polluted by nitrates from cattle (or whatever), is in a totally different place, not our Bellingham drinking water. (Though that is a problem in the north county.)

The pollution in inflow into the Lake Whatcom Reservoir from other creeks in its watershed, is monitored by the WWU on contract to the City.


Marian Beddill

Jan 07, 2015

The responsibility for cleanup of the lake, is with the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County.

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