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Water, Water Everywhere, But ...

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Although we get lots of rain and snow in the winter, Whatcom County faces serious water-supply issues during the summer months. Here are the key issues I see and what to do about them:

  • Salmon populations have declined dramatically over the past several decades.
  • We have a major responsibility to reverse these trends to restore healthy salmon (and other wildlife) populations.
  • Salmon-recovery efforts encompass a broad range of activities, including habitat restoration and protection, higher water quality, improved floodplain and land-use management, and better management of fishing. One element of such a program is improved management of human use of water to increase instream flows, especially during the summer. Indeed, streamflows interact with the other factors affecting salmon health; e.g., low streamflows lead to high water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen levels, less access to and extent of habitat, and increased concentrations of pollutants.
  • The streamflows set by the state Dept. of Ecology in its 1985 Nooksack Instream Resource Protection Program are not being met during the critical summer months when flows are low and human use of water is high (see Figure). Whether low summer flows are a serious problem or an artifact of how the numbers were developed is subject to debate.

For more information and ideas on water supply and the Nooksack rule, read my new paper, “What Does the Nooksack Instream Flow Rule Mean”.

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About Eric Hirst

Contributor • 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 14 years ago. He [...]

Comments by Readers

Steve Harris

Jan 31, 2018

There is a 2014 scientific study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences that correlates HIGH stream discharge during summer months with the low productivity of Chinook Salmon.  From the article abstract, “Low productivity was strongly associated with high stream discharge during the summer of freshwater residency for young-of-the-year Chinook salmon.”


It’s not lost on me that one need not look further than the right column of this website to view the difficulties in trying to balance increasing residential density (e.g. DADU) against “sprawl” and the need for water…



Larry Horowitz

Jan 31, 2018

Steve, are you seriously claiming that legalizing detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) in single-family zoned areas in Bellingham will prevent sprawl?  

Do you understand that attached ADUs (AADUs) are already legal in these areas and that only one or the other will be allowed?

Do you understand that Bellingham planning staff estimates that the total number of AADUs and DADUs combined per year will be only 33 units?  And there is no indication as to the split between attached and detached so there’s no way of knowing what impact legalizing DADUs will have?

At best, increased density can only delay sprawl.  The only way to prevent sprawl is for the county to permanently zone resource, forest and ag land to preclude residential development. 

If you believe in infinite growth, as many around here seem to do, then there is absolutely no possibility of preventing sprawl, regardless of how dense and unlivable Bellingham is allowed to become.  A better approach is to consider our region’s carrying capacity and ideal size and work backward from an ultimate goal.  Planning with 20-year blinders, as the GMA suicide pact requires, eliminates the possibility of mapping the future desired goal and ensures we will never reach our preferred destination.

Until we start considering the issues of Optimal Scale, Economic Growth, and Uneconomic Growth we will continue our unimpeded path toward the abyss where many former livable cities now find themselves.



Elisabeth Britt

Feb 01, 2018

Thank you, Eric. For another interesting article on Instream Flows.  I think your readers may find the following links to Department of Ecology presentations on Instream Flows  helpful, as they attempt to parse the intent and purpose of the Nooksack Instream Flow rule. 

On December 3, 2014, the Department of Ecology provided a video-taped presentation on instream flows at a WRIA 1 Planning Unit meeting.  Ann Wessel also provided a  Powerpoint presentation that discusses how the Nooksack instream flow rule was set.  She also states that while the Nooksack instream flow rule is an appropriation, it  is not intended to be attained.  

I whole-heartedly agree that we need to take steps to ensure that there is enough water in the streams and rivers to allow salmon to spawn. And, I’m aware that salmon fry need adequate water to grow and feed as they move down the river.  Studies demonstrate that larger, healthier fry stand a better chance of survivial - once they enter the Salish Sea. Where the mortality rate is staggering

So, how do we accomplish this goal? Well, there isn’t enough room in the comment box to have that discussion. But part of the solution is ensuring that we provide a carefully designed system of off-channel reservoirs that offer additional habitat and water during low flow or drought. As you indicated in the  title of this article, water, water everywhere. Except when we need it.  




Eric Hirst

Feb 01, 2018

Elisabeth, thanks for your helpful comments on my article.

We likely both believe that salmon are doing poorly because of many factors, some involving ocean conditions and others involving their freshwater habitat. Here are two other reports interested readers might want to look at: 7/2002 report on Salmon and Steelhead Limiting Factors in WRIA 1 and the 2005 WRIA 1 Salmonid Recovery Plan.


Steve Harris

Feb 01, 2018

Hi Larry,  no, I wasn’t trying to claim that at all.  I actually support preserving the character of residential neighborhoods and don’t believe that accessory dwelling units (detached or otherwise) will prevent sprawl or provide any real long-term relief for those needing affordable housing.  Actually, I’m concerned that they (ADU’s) may actually have the opposite effect—those able to, will simply opt for a more rural setting to flee the “densification” of their once livable neighborhood. 

The point I was trying to make (apparently not so well) was the relationship of how rulemaking relating to the access to water can have dramatic effects on urban density.  Restricting access to new rural users will neccessarily cause increases in population to more urban areas. 


Larry Horowitz

Feb 01, 2018

Steve, thanks for taking time to clarify.  I apologize for totally misreading your comment.

I completely agree that, at a certain level of density, more and more people will “opt for a more rural setting to flee the densification of their once livable neighborhood.”



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