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Whatcom Water Resources: A Major Problem and a Reasonable Solution

By On

Streamflows in the Nooksack River and its tributaries are very low almost every summer. These low flows hurt salmon, trout, and other fish because they contribute to high water temperatures, low levels of dissolved oxygen, and less habitat.

These low flows are caused largely by human out-of-stream water use, especially for agricultural irrigation. And about 40% of that water use lacks authorization from the state; farmers, largely through no fault of their own, do not have the legal right to use this water.

Authorized, permitted, unpermitted and surplus water rights.
Authorized, permitted, unpermitted and surplus water rights by WID.

This is a huge problem that has persisted for three decades. Fortunately, a reasonable solution is available. The solution would call on the six watershed improvement districts (WIDs) to identify, quantify and then solve the problem. (The WIDs account for more than 90% of the irrigated acreage and water use in Whatcom County.) A solution is feasible because the farmers in each of the WIDS, in aggregate, have more than enough water rights to cover both the permitted and unpermitted water use (see Figure). See the attached article for detailed information on the problem and ideas on potential solutions.

As always, I welcome comments on my analysis and suggestions.

Attached Files

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

Elisabeth Britt

Dec 18, 2017

Hi Eric,

Thank you for another interesting article on agricultural water use in Whatcom County. 

There is an interesting paper written by Rio Digby titled “Locating Unpermitted Irrigation Water Use in Whatcom County.” The link to the paper can be found  here . Rio graduated from WWU in 2016 with a B.A. in Environmental Studies. I believe he’s currently working for Google Maps. 

Rio used the WSDA crop distribution data for 2015, which reports 88,225 acres of crop land in Whatcom County.  He eliminated Lummi Nation Reservation  land that is not irrigated and  reduced the total acreage to 40,873 acres. He then overlayed the irrigated crop lands with Ecology’s GWIS data to locate lands that are irrigated  but might not have a water right. According to his analysis, land that potentially lacks a water right amounts to 5.3% of the irrigated acres in Whatcom County.

The primary purpose of his project was to develop a methodolgy to identify the extent and locations of unpermitted water use in Whatcom County. His secondary objective is to quantify unpermitted water use in the agricultural sector.  I agree with his statement that with the limitations in data, it is impossible at this time to make definitive statements about who is and who is not using water legally. 

Rio states that two factors might explain the 5.3% estimate. First, the DOE database does not show the allowed purposes of water use. Second, some farmers might use more water than their permit or certificate allows.  I agree with Rio that the allowed use of water needs to be teased out of the data before we state that 40% of agricultural users do not have authorization to use the water they are using. I hope you enjoy reading his paper. He did use one of your papers, “Whatcom Irrigation Water Use” while researching his project. 

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Eric Hirst

Dec 18, 2017

Elisabeth,

Thanks for the comment and reference to Rio Digby’s paper. First, Rio is a woman. More important, the work reported in my NW Citizen article is based on Rio’s original work plus that of two other students who worked on this project subsequently: Dan Ashley and Ben Larson. For a variety or reasons and through no fault of her own, Rio’s results were incomplete. But they did set the stage for the subsequent, more complete work.

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Elisabeth Britt

Dec 18, 2017

My sincerely appologies to Rio. I’ve never had the priviledge of meeting her or her co-researchers from WWU. 

Perhaps we can agree that it is impossible to make definitive statements about who is or is not using water illegally, until we have accurate data that permits counties to determine the acutal use of the water, before claiming that 70%, 60% or 30% of agricultural water use in Whatcom County is illegal.  

I find it deeply disturbing that there is a wide disparity in estimated illegal water use in various local pubications.  We have an obligation as writers and members of the community to ensure that we are not using inflated estimates, when discussing illegal water use in Whatcom County.  

That said, the legislature has an obligation to provide state-wide funding for all 39 counties to ensure that we have accurate data prior to making water allocation decisions.  Naturally,  I support WIDS.  But I have concerns about printing statements that assume we have plenty of water, without having detailed water data that would allow decision makers to make informed water allocation decisions.  

And, yes. I agree with you. We have plenty of water. But that assumption in and of itself doesn’t provide us with the data we need to approve 30 or more years of pending water rights applications.  Nor does it allow us to make scientifically based decisions about applications for permit exempt wells for residential rural homes.  It’s just my opinion, based on 20 years of community service and in depth studies of our existing aquifers during the WRIA 1 Watershed Planning Process.

 

 

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Eric Hirst

Dec 18, 2017

I agree"that it is impossible to make definitive statements about who is or is not using water illegally, until we have accurate data.” But there are no plans, at least that I know of, to assemble and provide that data. That is why I recommend that one or more of the local watershed improvement districts take the lead in (1) quantifying the extent of permitted and unpermitted water use and then (2) using that information to work out a solution within the boundaries of that WID.

 Elisabeth, what specifically do you suggest we do to resolve this decades-old problem of unpermitted water use?

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g.h.kirsch

Dec 19, 2017

Your unyielding efforts on water are to be appreciated.  If you can ever unravel the mess Whatcom county has made of this, nothing less than sainthood will do to recognize those efforts.

However, I think your statement, farmers have misappropriated water through “no fault of their own” is a bit too generous.  Ignorance of the law is never an excuse.

Even  the holder of a legal water right in a closed basin has only a right to continue to use the amount of water they already put to beneficial use.  I fail to uderstand how farmers without water rights would be able to receive water from other farmers who  have not put the entirety of their water rights to beneficial use.  After relinquishment, only after instream flows are returned to adequacy can any new use be approved.

This feature of the law is all that stands between preservation of the Lake Whatcom watershed, salmon in Whatcom creek, and the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District.  The fact is, more water rights have been granted than there is water.  And faced with this, the latecomers are the first to lose their rights.  Just as the water district is prohibited from increasing their withdrawals in that basin, so too, in every basin, strict enforcement of the law stops farmers from increasing their withdrawals, even for the most charitable pusposes.

As incredgibly valuable as the State Supreme Court decision was, federal law from Boldt to Martinis recognizes that salmon protected by treaty have a right that precedes the first farmer.

I appreciate that the water law, and your persistence,  has stymied thoughtless land development in Whatcom county for now.  I am very sympathetic to the plight of our agricultural community.  Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t think we can just pass the water around to preserve a distribution inconsistent with the law and court rulings.

g.h.kirsch

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Eric Hirst

Dec 19, 2017

I agree with Greg’s comments. As he notes, we have allocated more water for human, out-of-stream uses than is actually available. Therefore, salmon, other fish and the environment in general suffer.

Re-allocating water within a local watershed should have no adverse effects on instream flows. Indeed, if done well, the watershed improvement districts could solve the unpermitted water use problem and increase instream flows.

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Elisabeth Britt

Dec 20, 2017

Greg and Eric, please feel free  to post your supporting facts.  God knows, those horrible folks who applied for water rights, but were ignored by DOE for 30 or more years, are certainly villians.  They must be  single-handedly responsible for the perceived water shortages in Whatcom County.

So, gentlement. Please take a few moments to provide verifiable scientific data that supports your arguments. 

In particular, I would love to see data that truly supports adverse effects of pending water rights applications on instream flows.  Eric, I woluld love to see your data that supports your allegations that we have allocated more water for human out-of-stream uses than is actually available.  I’m not interested in your “opinion” I want facts. Prove to me, beyond a shadow of doubt, that insufficient instream flows are  100% responsible for salmon population decimation. And, while your at it - please describe in detail how fish hatchery operations have perhaps, adversely effected native runs. 

It goes without saying that I am 100% in support of healthy fish  populations and habitat.  I love salmon. I want to see them thrive. That said, could you please provide your hypotheisis  and conclusions?  With all supporting documentation to prove your assertions that current human water use is the real culbrit in salmon population decimation.? Without personal attacts. Can’t wait to read your responses. 

 

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g.h.kirsch

Dec 26, 2017

 

I would have expected better than a straw man reproach, Elizabeth.  For my part, I’d never assert that 1) pending water rights applications are responsible for inadequate instream flows; 2) inadequate instream flows are solely responsible for the decline in salmon populations; or 3) those taking water without a right to the same are the only villains in this piece.  
 
The real culprits go way way back, more than a century: unwise agricultural irrigation and runoff, forest practices that ignored the value of the salmon resource, deforestation around rivers and streams, thoughtless development in watersheds and the associated depletion of groundwater.  So please understand current water use is hardly the only culprit, but that use is a culprit.
 
There were times farmers diverted water from rivers for irrigation only to fill their fields with silver carcasses.  Times when loggers used splash dams to cheaply get logs to mills, scouring stream beds of salmon nests.  Residential and municipal development in disregard of an extraordinary economic resource. I could go on ... over fishing, human greed, short sightedness and just simple ignorance.
 
Ecology has a listing of lakes, rivers and streams whose basins are closed to further withdrawals. They have closed these areas because the inadequacy of instream flows is sufficient evidence water is at least maxed out if not over allocated.  That’s enough proof for me. 
 
Water rights are unique.  They are usufructuary rights, impermanent and subject to continued availability and continued beneficial use. Those without water rights do not have a right to use water.  The fact we have allowed some to violate the law does not make them the sole villains.  We have all looked the other way and squandered the future to our present devices. Perhaps relinquishment is the process that might allow us to rationalize water use and someday escape this morass.
 
I haven’t time to explain how salmon hatcheries have impacted natural salmon populations (or how salmon farming around the world has had a simalarly deleterious effect).  But if you would like to understand that better I recommend you read Salmon without Rivers. It’s a sad history.  These were unwise attempts to undo the damage  we had already done.
 
You and I approach these issues from very different places. You are concerned that regulation not interfere with private property rights, economic development, and generally maintain faith with the tenants of Wise Use.  For my part, I believe in an older idea, dating to the Charter of the Forest, adopted contemporaneously with Magna Carta.  I believe in the commons, and the duty to defend it from thoughtless self interest.
 
There is no desire to vilify people.  It would be wonderful if we could all accept our share of the blame for the waste we’ve wrought.  Just imagine how much value has been lost.  Imagine the economic rewards our region would enjoy if the abundance of salmon we’ve squandered remained, year after year, supporting our economic welfare. 
 
g.h. kirsch
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Elisabeth Britt

Dec 26, 2017

I support the wise use - property rights movement approach to managing water and environmental resources? Did you have a bit too much Christmas cheer before you started typing your comment, Greg? 

I don’t necessarily accept that all the data Ecology is using is current. Either does Ecology. In fact, some of the data they are relying on is probably harming the environment more than it is helping it. I would even venture to guess that Eric Hirst agrees with me.  

That said, is it appropriate to claim publicly that we actually know the number of illegal water users in Whatcom County?  Do we really have a number or percentage that is based on solid data or scientific evidence? Rather than speculation? 70%, 60%, 40%, 30% or 5.3%? Which is it? 

Back in college, I was taught that the scientific method allows us to investigate environmental and other phenomena, while acquiring new knowledge that can help us solve previously unsolveable problems. It also allows us to correct or integrate previous knowledge into our exisiting knowledge base. A scientific inquiry is based on empirical or measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.

For the life of me, I can’t understand how educated adults can grab hold of a study or a number - and declare it as sacred as a chapter of the old testiment of the Bible. According to this faulty reasoning, our current science regarding  water and environmental management can never be updated or challenged. Not even by scientists or dedicated community members who really want to save our salmon and create an integrated holistic management program that protects our natural resources, rural property dwellers and farmers. There is middle ground.   

For the record, I’ve spent thousands of hours studying this issue, including the damage caused by fish hatcheries, poor forestry management techniques, outdated irrigation methods, etc.. A good part of the background knowledge I have aquired comes from hundreds of hours of participation on Technical Teams that were comprised of local, state and federal agency representatives. I have also spent too many hours observing the International negotiations regarding salmon treaties between Canada and the United States. Next time you want to insult me, Greg. Do it in person.

 

 

 

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Ryan Knowlton

Jan 22, 2018

I’ve wrote and commented before on this issue, and have been largely ignored. Maybe because I’m not some implant with a degree? Idk. But, I grew up here, my parents grew up here, as did a majority of their parents.  Speculate all you like, but having spent my whole like here I have SEEN the change. Global warming is real, and it is cyclic on a large scale. Ice core samples prove it….. Lake Whatcom used to freeze over hard enough to ice skate on every winter, and we’d also get 12” plus of snow at least once every winter *in Bellingham*.  Then these “el nino” winters started happening, warm wet winters with little to no snow, and now they are the norm it seems. As a result, the huge snow packs in the mountains which used to melt off during the summer and feed the river are far less. While we have been seeing more and more years of lower river levels on the Nooksack, we still haven’t seen the levels reach the 1979 record low according to USGS statistics on the river. I believe that we have a negligable increase in water consumption(outside the cities), but are dealing with LESS water available in the river due to less snowpack.

Now, I have rafted, tubed, swam,  and fished in the river for years. I don’t believe the part about low disolved oxygen levels, because even in the hotest summer months I can tell you that river is still really cold, and while there is less water and the channel is narrower, it’s still moving quickly.  Likewise, the fish don’t come up the river until September, which by then things are starting to get pretty wet here again. I know this well, because often times I haven’t been able to fish because a fresh rain has turned the river chocolate milk brown.  The other major impacts to the fish, are many. I have an aquantance that is on the fish and wildlife dept advisory board so I am fairly up to speed with whats going on and I’ll say what I can here. Puget sound in general, lacks the predators found in the open ocean, so seals and sea-lions have flourished under federal protection and become the largest consumer of fish in the puget sound(population x average pounds of fish per day). There are so many, that at high tide they fight over spots on the exposed rocks, and swim up river to the bases of dams and fish ladders and eat everything in sight. In a study, seals and sea lions were observed catching fish after fish, and just eating the belly/eggs out of the fish and tossing the rest only to grab another a few minutes later.  The 2nd factor, especially in Whatcom county, is fishing pressure on the fish stocks.  Bellingham bay is only accessable from puget sound  through several fairly narrow(in relation) channels which make it easy for commercial venues to net most of the incoming fish. What gets through, is then subject to netting in the rivers. In a recent cleanup of the Nooksack river, 62 “ghost nets” were located and removed. Now we all know only who is allowed to net the river. 3rd and finally, and relative to the netting, is the species of fish, and the money. Chinook have been ESA listed for years in the Nooksack, and therefore closed to recreational fishing. Furthermore, fishing for other species like Coho, which can overlap the Chinook migration, is also closed to recreational fishing due to potential bycatch until the Chinook have passed through. Interestingly enough, the Chum salmon run is thriving in the Nooksack. One can be in the right place in the river and their are so many they are bumping into your legs. These are a low value fish, having a very mild light pink to white meat that doesn’t have much flavor, and therefore not wanted by the typcial parties that are grabbing up the Coho and Chinook. The final result, fish return rates to our hatcheries of Chinook and Coho are some of, if not the worst in the state. The Coho returns for example, at my last look of the records, to the Hatchery downtown on Whatcom creek, sees only THREE fish return for every 10,000 smolts released.

Now, in regards to the Hirst decision, lets discuss “backwards’ some more.  The hirst decision put a stop to most development in whatcom county.  This has resulted in a starved housing market which has drove prices and rents to record highs, and crammed more development within the city limits. Bellingham, for instance….where you reside Mr. Hirst, draws **16 million gallons a day** in it’s peak usage during the summer, when things are at their worst as far as water levels, from the middle fork of the Nooksack, through Lake Whatcom. Unlike some residents of the county on wells and using septic systems, Bellingham has a high density of properities that are “fully developed”. Every property is all house, driveway, lawns, and flowerbeds that consume water, and discharge what water is left into the sewer system which is then processed and ejected into Bellingham Bay at post point. Most rural homes upon acreage, may have a “apron” of lawn and flowerbeds, with the rest left as field or forest that doesn’t require watering.  Instead of allowing development in an area where the user already has “on site water mitigation” their septic system (this is an acceptable method of water mitigation via the dept of ecology by the way), we are instead pushing growth into the cities which are the prime residential culprit users of water from the river. which is NOT returned to the water table.  Talk about backwards.

As for a fix, several are obvious while some are not. As a recreational fishermen, we are not allowed to fish in the area’s salmon are spawning, so I have to keep track of where this is happening. Because of the hard rains that come every fall, I’m noticing the spawning area’s are moving downstream, and it’s many of our opinions that the gully-washers that hit the river after these rains wash out alot of the eggs from the spawning fish reducing the #‘s of fry that return to the sound. Salmon returns were very poor this year, mainly due to the washing out of the Skagit and Nooksack rivers by very heavy rains and flooding a few years ago, a couple years in a row. These floods also wash more gravel downriver, which fills in spots and makes it more shallow. Years ago, when boats and small barges used to travel the nooksack, it had to be dredged to keep it open.  A fix for this would be to retain more of this water to help reduce the flooing effects in the “monsoon season” and have this water to release in the dry season. This means more dams, on every level possible, at a Civil level, not at a water users level where the stored water will go stagnant and become a breeding ground for mosquitos and algae. This doesn’t have to be giant projects blocking major rivers, but the creation of many small dams creating ponds on the small tributaries upsteam of where fish travel to spawn. In my opinon, this should be part of our federal and state government’s job, at accomodating the growth, as they are sure collecting the taxes. It is, afterall, our own state, which has ads in Sunset Magazine advertising our corner of the world to the nation. Grrrrr. This growth we are expiencing here, is not of my wish by any means. I have seen no benefit from it, only higher costs of living, more traffic, more crime, and more people competing for the “fun places” like parks, boat launches, pools, beaches, etc, of which we have had little to no new venues despite the doubling of the area’s population.  

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