Marian Beddill writes this guest article. She is a retired civil engineer and has been deeply involved in the water issues and cleanup of Lake Whatcom for over 15 years, and was part of the citizen team who launched the WRIA1 Planning Unit.”
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Water is valuable. But 99% of us pay no attention to that. You turn on your faucet, and you get “your” water, as much as you need. Winter & Summer.
Ah! You must live in a Washington State city, or in an area served by a water-utility, and you pay them to deliver your water to you through their pipes. Note an important distinction: you are NOT really buying water - you are paying the delivery-service to send it to you in their pipes.
So where and how do THEY get the water that they send to you? After all, nature’s water in the rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers of Washington State, belongs “to the people”, and is protected and managed by the State. A water-utility, even for a city as big as Bellingham or Seattle, has to get permission of the State to grab water from the natural sources. They have to be granted a “water-right”. And that rights permit specifies where they can take it from, and how much, and maybe even when (worrying especially about the dry season). We’ll likely agree that’s a good idea.
How about the people who live out in the country, and do not have a water utility to serve them. Well, (and pardon the pun) they just drill or dig a well, and take water from the supply down there. Or sit a pump and pipe on the riverbank or behind a little dam in a creek, and suck it from the flow. Simple enough. So what’s the problem here? Well, they may not have been given “a right” to take that public resource. Same way that nobody can, for example, cut and haul a tree from a public park - it belongs to the public.
And, easy to visualize for the example of the creek—how many folks can take their water from the creek? Ohh! Not a whole lot! They might take it all, and dry up the creek so that folks downstream don’t have any water. That’s a basic reason that the State set up the administrative system of applications for—and the granting of—a right to take water from a public place. You gotta ask the State, and they have to say: “OKAY – you can take water from that place, and only this much.” You apply for, and have a water right granted. Who runs this rights-management program is the WA Dept of Ecology (“DoE”).
That sounds good, so— what’s the problem? Simple to explain, but maybe not easy to fix. Short answer, the DoE in recent years, has not been denying or issuing many of the rights applied for. We’ve historically had abundant water (in most places in Whatcom), and had limited government funds to run that activity. So far, there have not been serious conflicts between water users or between utilities, but as growth happens, that is sure to happen. Many of us think we should act NOW, to polish up the water-rights system, before a big fight happens.
I am aware of two basic things that ought to be done. 1) Be sure we have a good idea of the amounts of water that is out there, in all the places and through all the seasons—and 2) stop people from “stealing it” if they don’t have a “water-right” (a permit), but if they apply, and there will be water available (at their place and time of need), give them a proper permit.
All that will take is – technical studies of the flow, everywhere in our watersheds of the Nooksack River and the other creeks, all year long, and adjusted for climate change – plus having the staff of the DoE match the requests (from households, business, industry and agriculture) to the supply, so they can properly issue a certified right. Oh yeah! And maybe some water-cops to find the illegal users and issue citations and shut down their taking of public water.
Sounds pretty simple, huh?—just takes State funds. Well - there’s one more player in the game. You know that about 200 or 300 years ago, we newcomers grabbed the lands and waters here from the First Nations peoples (the Indians) who had lived here and used the water “since time immemorial”. But then a Federal settlement (a truce) on land and water was done - one part of which said (the language here is illustrative, not the legal terms) that the First-Nations have first rights to the water that is needed to keep on fishing for half of the salmon - since that is an essential part of their life and culture. Well, yeah, that sounds right, and is the proper thing to do.
So, how much water has to be provided, to meet that “usual and accustomed” fishing need? Ooops. nobody knows (except maybe the First Nations people, and so far – in 2014—they have not yet told us late-comers how much that is.)
There you have it. Learn how much water there is - and how much the First Nations need - then divide up the remaining water-rights among everybody else - keeping good records that match the real world. And be sure that everybody is following the rules. This just takes staff and budgets, plus the will to do it for everybody’s fair benefit.
How will you help?