Water Resource Planning: Prepare - Or Take Our Chances?

Water industry planning differs greatly from electric industry planning and here is the reason.

Water industry planning differs greatly from electric industry planning and here is the reason.

• Topics: Bellingham,

Electricity and water are essential resources in our society. But the way we efficiently plan for our electricity needs is vastly different from how poorly we plan for our water needs. These differences are dangerous because climate change is not only increasing the demand for water during critical low-flow summer months, but at the same time reducing river and stream flows.

Large companies that serve millions of customers dominate the electrical industry. They are highly organized, well structured, and rely on data collection and analysis to make predictions. Key elements of their planning include:

-Integrating supply, demand, transmission and distribution,
and pricing alternatives;

-Coordinating various utility departments;

-Dealing with uncertainty;

-Including outside experts, customers, and regulators;

-Considering environmental factors;

-Implementing plans, which include resource acquisition, and
collecting/analyzing data to improve future planning; and

-Monitoring the plan’s implementation and iteration of the
planning process.

Unfortunately, the water “industry” is structured entirely different, starting with the fact that in Whatcom County there is no centralized water industry. Here, independent municipal utilities, water districts, or water associations serve almost all residential, commercial, and industrial water users. The agricultural sector is almost entirely self-serve; i.e., farmers take water directly from a nearby stream or well. These differences alone hobble water-resource planning.

Being able to forecast water use is critical to determining how to meet future needs; but forecasts must have a starting point that measures water use by sector and drainage basin. Regrettably, such a starting point does not exist in Whatcom County. While all utilities meter the water use of their customers, no entity aggregates this data to document water use for the whole county. More importantly, most farmers do not meter their water. This omission is significant because agricultural irrigation is a major consumer of Whatcom County’s water during the summer when stream-flows are very low.

Even with baseline data on local water use, it would be difficult to develop meaningful projections of future water use because we don’t have forecasting models that incorporate key determinants. For residential, commercial, and industrial customers these determinants include the price of water and its rate structure, economic activity, government regulations, and utility programs promoting water-use efficiency (things like shower-heads, low-flow toilets, efficient washing machines, and sprinkler systems). For agricultural irrigation, forecasting models should include soil types, crop varieties and prices, as well as the effects of higher summer air temperatures and lower summer precipitation.

Were we to develop projections of future water needs, we would compare past needs with today’s ground and surface water supplies. This comparison would show how much, when, and where the gap is changing between future demand and today’s supply. This deficit could then be filled with a variety of supply, storage, efficiency, and water-reuse projects. We could develop plans for such projects and identify key characteristics of each one, including: capital and operating costs; potential funding sources; regulatory requirements; environmental effects; locations and timing of water provided/saved; and cost-effectiveness (e.g., $/acre-foot). There is no such inventory of potential resources for Whatcom County.

Currently, our ability and willingness to plan for our water future is falling short. The demand for water is increasing as Whatcom County’s population grows. At the same time, our water supplies are declining because of the effects of climate change: less snowfall, earlier springtime snow-melt, less summer rain, and rising summer air emperatures. Each of these issues increases the need for irrigation water.

Several factors contribute to this discouraging situation.

First, decisions on water in Whatcom County are made by many different organizations; consequently, nobody is in charge.

Second, we don’t know how much water is available for human use. Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe hold the most senior water rights in the county. These rights cover both in-stream flows to support healthy salmon and other wildlife, as well as on-reservation water use. Both Tribes have requested assistance from the federal government to quantify their water rights. That has not happened. Therefore, we don’t know how much water the two Tribes are entitled to. We are also uncertain how much water is needed in-stream for fish.

Third, we lack data on the most important human water use in the county – agricultural irrigation. Farmers are, understandably, reluctant to share information on their water use for two reasons. First, roughly 40% of the water used for agricultural irrigation lacks authorization from the Dept. of Ecology. Second, farmers who have become more efficient in their use of water are worried that any unused portion of their water right will be taken away by Ecology, under the use-it-or-lose-it requirement of state law.

Finally, we lack reliable estimates of the value of water; in particular how much water users would be willing to pay for additional supplies. Although prices exist for all the water utilities, no such data exists for farmers because they self-supply. Roughly, the price/cost of water across sectors varies by a factor of 50; so it is challenging to determine how much to pay for new or conserved water. A new supply costing $500/acre-foot might be a bargain for utilities but far too expensive for farmers. In addition, the value of water is location specific. Water would be more valuable in a drainage where flows are low and salmon are struggling, as opposed to another drainage that has adequate flows.

So, what needs to happen in order to produce a system that provides enough water for all life – plants, animals, and people? How can we plan a cost effective and practical water future?

First, the two Tribes need to be clear about the magnitude of their water rights. How much water do they think is needed at various places and times in the Nooksack River basin to support their treaty rights? These quantities might not be the final word on minimum flows in-stream, but they should be the starting point for negotiations between the tribes, Ecology, farmers, and others.

Second, I suggest that Whatcom County lead in organizing and catalyzing the work to produce a true action plan. Due to the fact that the county holds no water rights, it is a neutral party. I also believe Whatcom County should lead because Ecology, which some might view as the natural leader given its authority/responsibility under state law, has shown no leadership on local water issues.

Third, farmers, tribes, the county, utilities and others should petition the state legislature for a multi-year suspension of key elements of state water law that inhibit good planning. Such a suspension would encourage farmers to actively participate in finding solutions to our water-supply problems.

Finally, we should focus on data collection and analysis. We need more and better data on stream-flows, groundwater movement and its connectivity to surface water, out-of-stream water use, and the costs and benefits of resources we could use to fill the growing gap between existing supplies and demand.

Ultimately, we have no choice. The erratic and relentless pressures of climate change require us to address the problems of increasing summer demand and declining supplies of water.

Note: For more information, please go to links to my recent papers below

Attached Files

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

Michael Lilliquist

Feb 06, 2020

Readers of this article may also be interested in an article on some water law ideas being considered by the state legislature:


To comment, Log In or Register