Whatcom County Water Use: When and Why

Eric Hirst writes an overview of seasonal water use in Whatcom County - and supports his views with a well researched report that he also wrote.

Eric Hirst writes an overview of seasonal water use in Whatcom County - and supports his views with a well researched report that he also wrote.

Eric Hirst contributes this brief overview of a complex water situation. These views are supported by the attached well researched report by Hirst.

During the winter, it’s hard to imagine that Whatcom County has water supply problems. Indeed, a recent OpEd in the Bellingham Herald from farmers said that we are “…blessed with abundant water …”

We do have abundant water, but unfortunately not at the right time of year. We have plenty of rain and snow in the winter, when human water use is low. But in the summer, water use is high (primarily for agricultural irrigation) and stream flows are low. Summer flows are already too low to meet minimum requirements set by the state for the Nooksack River system and this contributes to depressed salmon runs. This supply/demand imbalance will almost surely get worse with population growth and the effects of climate change, leading to less water for people, fish, the environment, and recreation.

If we are serious about restoring salmon runs and environmental protection in general, we need to understand the details of water use: who uses water, for what purposes, and when. The bottom line (see graph above) is that water use varies dramatically from month to month, and is about five times greater in the summer than in the winter. This seasonal difference is almost entirely due to irrigation.

Unfortunately, no government entity—whether the state Dept. of Ecology or Whatcom County—has taken charge of this data issue, i.e., the collection, organization, analysis and reporting of statistics on water use. It is remarkable and disappointing that the few studies on local water uses are one-off and not repeated at regular intervals. Either state or local government, or both, should allocate money and people for this work.

See the attached pdf report, for information supporting this short article, on Whatcom County water, who uses it, for what purposes, and when.

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

Tip Johnson

Jan 07, 2017

Now we pay the piper for more than a century of systematically eliminating wetlands and forest watersheds.  Could be time to quit complaining about relatively new protections and get busy rebuilding the ecosystem.


Larry Horowitz

Jan 07, 2017

Eric, as always, thanks for your excellent research and recommendations.  Of course, the data and information you describe are essential to plan for our future growth.  It’s hard to fathom that our planners are trying to do their jobs with blinders on.

I’d also like to thank Elisabeth Britt for her valued insights and suggestions.  NWC and its readers are fortunate to have contributions from both Eric and Elisabeth. 

In the New Year’s Day Herald op-ed by Brad Rader and Fred Likkel (see link below), the writers claim that our aquifers are huge and mostly untapped.  They also claim that our aquifer is fully recharged by abundant rainfall and snowmelt every year.  In fact, we are told that we don’t even have a water shortage crisis because of the massive and fully recharged aquifer.  If Rader and Likkel are to be believed, even during summer months, there is no shortage of water. 

Elisabeth and Eric, do you agree with these claims?  

Tip, surely you jest.  How could you offer such a rational recommendation?  Rebuild the ecosystem?  While mired in a growth Ponzi scheme created by elected officials that even Bernie Madoff himself would be proud of?  While our local governments are tirelessly kiting the measly future revenues provided by development to pay off the enormous unfunded and off balance sheet debt from past growth?  

Sure, we’ll see lots of building.  But rebuilding the ecosystem hasn’t got much of a prayer. 

As promised, the link to the op-ed referenced by Eric: “Whatcom farmers see Hirst decision as opportunity to update outdated water law”



Larry Horowitz

Jan 08, 2017

Eric and Elisabeth,

On the WHATCOM HAWK Facebook page, Wendy Harris posted a comment about contamination of the Sumas-Blaine aquifer, referring to a 2008 Dept of Ecology report “Nitrate Trends in the Central Sumas-Blain Surficial Aqufier” and a June 2012 Ecology publication “Focus on Groundwater Quality in Whatcom County.” (Links provided below)

In your opinion, is this aquifer contaminated and, if so, does that affect the plans proposed by Rader and Likkel in their Herald op-ed? 

Link to Wendy Harris’ Jan 8, 2017 Whatcom Hawk post:


Link to Dept of Ecology reports:




Eric Hirst

Jan 09, 2017


Thanks for your excellent comments on local water issues.

I agree with the farmers that “our aquifers are huge.” I also agree that the Abbotsford-Sumas “aquifer is fully recharged by abundant rainfall and snowmelt every year.”

But I disagree with the idea that the aquifer can meet much of our human use of water. The key limitation is “hydraulic connectivity,” the many and complicated interactions between groundwater and surface water flows. Pumping water from an aquifer will almost surely affect downstream surface waters, although later in time, perhaps in smaller amounts, and likely with different physical, chemical and biological characteristics. Because these interactions are complicated, it is hard to know whether more wells and fewer diversions from the Nooksack River and its tributaries would help our water-supply situation and, more important, salmon populations. Fortunately, the county is nearing completion of a comprehensive groundwater model that should help quantify these relationships.


David Camp

Jan 09, 2017

Thanks, Eric, for your work in producing this study. It seems to me that the elephant in the room is agricultural use - whereas for exempt household use, water can be stored in sufficient quantity to carry through the dry season, it is impractical to store irrigation water for ag use. And since Ag use is the largest single dry season use, it’s not surprising all the farmers are concerned.

It is indeed a difficult problem for farmers to replace riparian and shallow well irrigation water so as not to inhibit in-stream flows in the dry season - it seems that the only viable solution is to irrigate with deep-well water, then maybe replace the water drawn in the summer from wet season surplus (reversing the well pump to push water back into the aquifer). You opined above about the aquifer - what do you think of this idea?

But it also seems unjust to pick on the least of water users, exempt household use, with a blanket ban when almost all the problem is in ag use. Surely there is sufficient brainpower in the County to come up with practical solutions?


Eric Hirst

Jan 10, 2017


I agree with your comment that agricultural irrigation is the key to most of our local water-quantity issues.

I don’t know enough about aquifers to know whether deep aquifers exist under our prime agricultural lands, which are concentrated around Lynden. Also, the deeper the aquifer the more expensive it is to drill a well and the more expensive it is to pump water up to the surface.

The Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision requiring the county to coordinate its land-use planning with water-resource planning in no way suggests a “blanket ban” on rural wells. I hope the county is working hard to find ways to provide owners of rural property with the water they need while protecting senior water rights, including the instream flows needed to support healthy salmon stocks and other wildlife.


Ryan Knowlton

Jan 30, 2017


Sadly the hirst decision is having a blanket ban effect on rural wells. The county is working on it, but is left a solid goal to attain with a bunch of unclear guesswork science to work with. No one knows what is underground, where springs deliver water, and where wells directly suck the river level down.  In general, however, we can agree that water runs downhill, and when it’s used and doesn’t make it to the river the river is lower. Many people, myself included, have found themselves with land with existing working wells installed years ago, and now cannot obtain a building permit.  This is not a building permit for countless chicken coup homes crammed onto a parcel, it’s for a single small in-expensive home I’ve designed using much reclaimed materials. I have been saving my money several years to build this on a 5 acre parcel along side 9 other homes( on their own 5 acres) built years ago. These homes are enjoying the same water(shared water association well) that I’m being denied a permit for. Strangley enough, I could park a huge RV on my land and hook everything up, water my lawn….which I feel is huge waste of water fuel and time maintaining,  among other uses, yet I can’t currntly get a permit to build my home.  The water is on, it works, I have adequate supply, and its been paid for since 1998.  I have some issues with the “science” behind the use and effects of water in rural vs. city consumption and where the “finger is pointing” regarding this decision. Bellingham for example, draws 18 million gallons per day from Lake Whatcom during peak season, which is fed by the middle fork of the Nooksack River. Based upon the record low flow in 1979, that accounts for nearly 3% of the rivers volume, which a majority of is then dumped into Bellingham bay.  A rural home using a well will also likely be on a septic system, which will be returning the water used within the home back to the water table. If the septic system is working properly, the outflow of reclaimed water shouldn’t cause any water quality issues, and even if it was, further treatment is always an option.  As a fishermen myself it’s been easy to see that the river gets very low during the summer months,  we’ve had several easy winters with low snowpack that have attributed to it being abnormally low for several years in a row now.  In the rainy seasons, however, it rains and it floods, often to the detriment of the spawning fish whose efforts are washed downstream in a torrent of mud and debris. Yet, we have no way of retaining this water beyond that of lake whatcom.  The warming trend is real, I grew up here in Bellingham and we used to see several feet of snow EVERY winter…not so now.  

Now, despite my disdain with what is happening, I’m not here to complain-I want to see solutions. Some people need solutiuons and need them fast. I’m lucky I have a place to stay while this blows over, but some people do not and have found themselves paying for land they can’t build on and are paying for their current place to stay as well.  Whatcom counties growth is not going to stop. Our state has/is advertising itself in Sunset magazine, for example.  Dealing with growth has been reactionary at best and this needs to change, and not by limiting growth such that only the rich can afford to live here.  We won’t see a civil project that will build more dams, lakes, and reserviors to hold more water, so we have to look elseware. 9 months of the year, we typcially have plenty of rain.  So I offer this as a solution at least for rural properties where the dispersement would actually replenish groundwater/streams and not just run into the storm drain like it would at a home in town.  A 1000sq/ft roof will potentially collect 22,900 gallons of water annually at average fainfall amounts.  As a divorced parent I have my kids two weekends a month and have consumed as little as 210 gallons a water a month, I would say I can easily stay under 1000 gallons a month.  It sounds unreal but it’s not, a quick shower in the morning for one person and I washed my dishes by hand, only had to do laundry once a week it’s not unrealistc. So why not collect rainwater which would be dispersed(dept of ecology calls this “in time, in place” mitigation), during these dry periods to offset consumption?  Simply put, as you consume water from your typical source, your stored rainwater(which would not be safe to consume or realistic to treat, store, and use in-home) is released to drain into the ground. Some plastic piping and $1100 gets you a 3000 gallon cistern that would offset my water use for 3 months. A larger family may need two of them.  Meter the tanks output and compare it to the meter on the incoming water to the home and you have your proof of mitigation.  Essentially, each home creates it’s own little “buffer” of backup water supply which would help balance out to some extent the flood/drought cycle that occurs.

Additionally, this needs to be looked into on a larger scale for farmers which is a hard deal to work out.  Retaining ponds will grow stale, breed mosquitoes, and evaporate water. Tanks of such large volume will be prohibitively expensive. I don’t know about you, but I like eating local food instead of food that was imported from 3rd world countries and grown who knows where, what in, and what was nearby(garbage dump, nuclear power plant, sewage dump, etc).



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