Guest writer Eric Hirst is retired to Bellingham and enjoys using his professional abilities to benefit our community. He has a doctorate from Stanford and spent his professional career doing reports on energy issues. Deb Gaber edited Eric’s 4,800 word report down to this 1,800 word article. You can read his full report via the link at the bottom of this article.
If someone had asked me two years ago about water problems in Whatcom County, I would have offered a three-word response, “Lake Whatcom pollution.” As far as I knew, that was the only serious water problem we faced.
In early 2014, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities began a small project, WaterWork, to address freshwater supply and quality issues. At about the same time, the League of Women Voters sponsored forums on local water issues. Suddenly, I began to understand that Whatcom County faces serious problems. These problems concern water pollution, new sources of supply, efficiency of water use, fish listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, antiquated and inadequately enforced state water laws, and so on.
Thus began a journey to understand these issues and possible solutions to our problems. The result, at this point in the journey, is the article you are (I hope!) about to read. - Eric
Clean, affordable, and sufficient water is essential. While it may seem that Whatcom County has plenty of water, remember that this year we lost both ski events in Ski-to-Sea and the road to Artist Point opened two months earlier than usual. Will this be the new normal? Because water affects everything on this planet in one way or another, we need to better understand our water systems and problems and then move to improve them.
This article outlines how we use water and proposes a partial solution: locational and time-sensitive water pricing.
How Much Water Do We Use?
In 2010, Whatcom County used almost 33 billion gallons of water, or 90 million gallons a day. Irrigation is by far the largest water demand, using 38% of our annual total. Industry accounts for 26%; residential use is 22%; livestock takes 4%; and aquaculture, mining and commercial uses account for the remaining 10%.
There are seasonal differences in water use, too. In the summer, July through September, water use is 3.6 times greater than in the winter, November through January. This seasonal difference is driven primarily by irrigation, but residential, commercial and industrial demands are also higher in the summer. And none of these numbers consider the amount of water that must be left in-stream for navigation, fish and wildlife, recreation, aesthetics, and waste assimilation.
Then there’s the issue of supply. A little more than half - 57% - is surface water, the rest comes as groundwater from wells, all of which comes from precipitation. Bellingham averages 4.9” of rain per month in the winter, but only 1.4” a month in the summer. So, summer supply is only 29% of winter supply, but demand in summer is 357% greater than in winter.
How Much Does it Cost?
A family of four uses about 200 gallons/day, which costs about $60/month. But in fact, nobody actually pays for “water.” We pay for the pumps, pipes, treatment plants, electricity, supplies, operation and maintenance. The water is free.
Industrial rates are much lower than residential rates, primarily because while the two oil refineries and the aluminum smelter at Cherry Point use much more water, it’s lower quality. So to compare, we pay 3 cents per gallon for residential city water while industrial users at Cherry Point pay 0.14 cents per gallon.
The Big Three: Demand, Quality, and Supply
Demand will continue to escalate due to population growth and climate change. Historical trends and official forecasts predict a Whatcom County population growth of 1.1% a year for the next 30 years, or almost 84,000 more people.
Air temperatures will continue to escalate due to greenhouse-gas emissions and that, in turn, will not only drive up water temperatures, but increase outdoor use as well. Increasing temperatures will also continue to shrink glaciers and reduce snowfall on Mt. Baker, reducing Nooksack River flows, diminishing fish runs and causing water shortages and droughts. U.S. Geological Survey measurements show a 27% reduction of summer flows in the Nooksack River between 1963 and 2003. Finally, as other areas in the U.S. experience less rainfall and more frequent drought, their residents will increasingly move to the Pacific Northwest, further driving population growth in our area.
In addition, if the proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point is built, water consumption could increase by 2 billion gallons a year, roughly 5% of our current total water use.
At the same time, Whatcom County’s water quality is deteriorating. Streams and bays are polluted with fecal coliform bacteria from failing septic tanks, livestock, and wild animals. Storm-water runoff contains toxic metals, petroleum, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers from farms and homes. According to the Department of Ecology, the Sumas-Blaine aquifer has “some of the most widespread and elevated nitrate contamination in the state.” And increasing water use only worsens water-pollution problems.
Compounding the problems with demand and quality, our supply of water is over-extended, illegally used and mostly unmeasured.
“Most water in the Nooksack watershed is already legally spoken for,” according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. “Increasing demands for water from ongoing population growth, diminishing surface water supplies, declining groundwater levels in some areas during peak use periods, and the impacts of climate change limit Ecology’s ability to issue new water rights in this watershed.”
Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe also have legal claims to water. Treaty rights from 1855, perhaps to “time immemorial,” guarantee them the right to harvest salmon—which require clean, cool water. Yet summer flows in the Nooksack River and many of its tributaries are already below the minimum requirements set by Ecology: “From 1986 to 2009, flows in the Nooksack River failed to meet in-stream flow-rule requirements 72% of the time during the July-September flow period.”
Additionally, as much as 70% of agricultural water use in Whatcom County violates state law. Because agriculture accounts for 65% of summer use, bringing farmers into compliance is a major issue. A report for the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District in Lynden noted, “… non-permitted water use is one of the most pressing water resource management issues for the area.” Also, the city of Lynden uses more water than it has a legal right to use and “326 public water systems do not have water rights.” As Lynden grows, this problem will worsen.
One of the biggest complications is that much of the water in Whatcom County is not metered, recorded, or reported. Without reliable data on consumption, it will be challenging to resolve water-supply problems because, even with improvements, we won’t know if more efficient systems are working. According to Washington’s Department of Health, “Installing meters is the most important step you can take to establish an effective WUE [Water Use Efficiency] program.”
Water quality and use is controlled by federal, state, tribal, and local jurisdictions. State water laws identify problems and mandate solutions. County governments regulate land use and oversee public health issues of water quality and septic systems. Municipal governments and local water districts/associations operate water utilities. The courts are also certain to be involved, particularly regarding the 1855 Native American treaty rights.
Because these issues are complicated and longstanding, solutions will likely be expensive, controversial, and multifaceted. They may require new land use regulation as well as greater enforcement of water consumption and pollution laws. Below is a list of possible solutions.
- The county’s growth-management regulations could restrict development in areas that have problems with water supply and/or quality, or require mitigation.
- The county could improve its alignment of agricultural zoning with soil quality and water availability.
- It could strengthen existing water-quality and land-use regulations by requiring professional inspections of septic-systems. It could ensure better control of fertilizers and manure by keeping livestock away from creeks and rivers.
- Municipal governments and the county could improve storm-water management with stricter limits on impervious surfaces, and provide greater protection for critical areas such as flood zones, aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, and wildlife habitat and migration corridors.
- Cities and water districts/associations could modify rates to encourage efficiency. The city of Lynden already has a $150 penalty for “waste of water.”
- Cities could add surcharges to help pay for solutions. Bellingham charges every single-family home $12 a month to help buy land in the Lake Whatcom watershed.
- Water utilities could offer residential, commercial, and industrial customers help becoming more efficient in the same way electric utilities have done for decades.
- Because the public owns the water, it would be reasonable to tax its use to promote efficiency, raise revenue for water projects, improve data on consumption, and increase public awareness. A tax, and the discussion it will generate, will signal that water is critical, scarce and must be used wisely. And taxing water reduces the need for regulation because market forces spur efficiency.
A countywide charge of 0.01 cent per gallon during the summer—less than $3 a year for the typical Whatcom County family—would generate $1.5 million a year. It would be less than a 1% rate increase for large industrial customers. The agricultural sector would pay about $1 million a year, which is less than 1% of the value of our agricultural products.
Higher water prices will encourage users to make capital improvements and behavioral changes to increase efficiency and reduce pressure on supply. Low-flow toilets and front-loading washing machines are more expensive to buy but use one to two-thirds less water than their conventional counterparts.
Seasonal water pricing will encourage homeowners to conserve, watering their lawns less often, for shorter times, and before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m., to encourage better water absorption.
Farmers, faced with price increases, will irrigate more efficiently. Watering will become more precise: timed and controlled to minimize evaporation and runoff and applied closer to the plants to maximize absorption by crops and soil.
Whatcom County has serious water supply and quality problems that are complicated, interactive, and long-term. As population grows and the supply of clean water continues to decline, in part because of global climate change, these problems will likely get worse. We cannot think of water as infinite and inexhaustible. Its supply is fixed and its quality must be protected and improved. This will require new policies, programs, and regulation from all levels of government as well as the keen awareness of every consumer. Taxing each gallon of water consumed would help resolve these problems.
A tax would signal that water is a scarce resource that must be used efficiently. It would provide important market signals regarding when and where to consume water and when and where to conserve. Metering use would provide valuable information on where, how, and when water is used in Whatcom County, allowing us to develop better policies and programs to not only preserve supply, but also improve quality. Finally, it would encourage greater efficiency during critical summer months, which is a value in its own right as a “resource” that could be used when Lummi and Nooksack rights to minimum in-stream flows are determined. It would facilitate formation of local water markets, and revenues collected could help solve local water problems.