The Gristle

Drip, Drip, Drip
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DRIP, DRIP, DRIP: In 2011, Lummi Nation and other tribal authorities requested a declaratory judgement by the federal government on their treaty-reserved water rights, concerned that the oversubscription of water withdrawals threatened tribal fisheries. While the tribes wait for a federal response, case law continues to accumulate that suggests the federal government will indeed take their tribal water claims very seriously, including a decision in March of last year that requires the state to retrofit disruptive water systems to provide fish with additional stream habitat. For those paying attention, these events signaled serious departure from years of stalling and dithering and bluffing about water rights and water access. For these reasons, 2014 has become a watershed year for local concerns about water.

Many groups are at work trying to quantify and qualify water rights and water access. Some groups are likely to be more effective than others.

The Lake Whatcom Policy Group met this week in one of their more productive meetings to date to discuss the strategies and investments necessary to achieve phosphorous reduction in the reservoir that supplies half the county’s population with drinking water. The reduction of total maximum daily load (TMDL) of pollutants entering the lake is outlined and required by the state Dept. of Ecology. The agency gave local governments two vectors upon which to base their investigations: How much money would it take to achieve the TMDL reduction in 50 years? Conversely, how long would it take to achieve the reduction given amounts of money local governments are willing to spend?

The county mapped the answer to both these questions in 2008 in the county’s integrated water resource plan (CWRIP), and the Policy Group spent much of their time this week blowing the dust from that document and updating its cost estimates. The answer to the first part of Ecology’s question appears to be about $90 million, based on those earlier estimates and what local governments have spent to date removing a mere fraction of the phosphorous required under the TMDL. That removal amounts to about $20,000 per pound of phosphorous required to achieve DOE’s standard.

Local governments receive a couple of understated economies in the equation. Ecology assumed the watershed would be extensively logged, and set their TMDL baseline to that standard. The watershed will not be extensively logged. Ecology also assumed the City of Bellingham would continue to introduce phosphorous into the lake through the city’s diversion on the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River. The city may not continue to introduce Nooksack River water into Lake Whatcom. Both policies could improve Ecology’s modeling forecast, and local governments should get credit for what they do not do, even as they seek to improve what they are doing.

Sluggish as policy on Lake Whatcom has been, the larger picture of countywide water policy appears far less promising.

Whatcom County Council last month authorized another $40,000 to continue to challenge the findings of a state board that found the county had not appropriately coordinated development with available water resources. We’ve written before of the high bar set by the state’s growth laws that presume counties know what they are doing unless it can be demonstrated their actions are “clearly erroneous.” Given earlier findings by the boards and courts, it seems very nearly impossible that the county will prevail in this challenge that has cost taxpayers well in excess of $250,000; however, council seeks certainty, even the certainty of a loss, moving forward. In fact, the county has very clearly suggested that it does not intend to take any further legislative action without the certainty of a court ruling. That includes actions county policymakers know they must undertake, whatever the outcome in court.

Meanwhile, County Council continues to throw money at the all-but-useless Planning Unit authorized by the State Watershed Planning Act, a board representing ten caucuses of various quarrelsome stakeholders in water resource planning. Council last month authorized another $20,000 to fund the fumbling and bumbling of this group for another six months in what is, at core, the abdication and surrender of council’s policymaking authority to a cabal infamous for its paralysis and dysfunction.

At the heart of the Planning Unit’s dysfunction is the organization’s inability to subordinate the competing goals of the various stakeholders to the local governments who initiate and sponsor watershed planning under RCW 90.82. In this mash-up of private well owners, irrigators, fisheries, environmentalists, water purveyors and initiating governments, all stakeholders are not created equal and their rules of order should reflect this.

Among them, the initiating governments clearly hold the broadest, most general purpose interest in providing equitable balance to competing interests. In the case of cities like Bellingham, they also have clearly established rights to water. The county holds no water right, provides water service to no one, and for this reason is the perfect instrument to establish reasoned policy in coordination with other initiating governments.

Whatcom County already has the perfect instrument to represent these interests, the Council of Governments.

The WCCOG already does regional analysis and planning for transportation and growth, and is an instrument to coordinate that planning with state and federal grant and loan programs.

Rather than throw $20,000 at a dysfunctional Planning Unit, council should use that money to activate the COG on local governments’ contribution to regional watershed planning. All cities and major water purveyors are already seated on COG’s governing council. Allow the COG to proceed while County Council dithers and frets, awaiting their court ruling.

Attend a panel discussion on water this Sat., April 19, at Bellingham Public Library starting at 9:30am. Panelists include County Council member Carl Weimer, Public Utility District Manager Steve Jilk, and City of Bellingham engineer John Hutchings. State Rep. Vincent Buys will moderate. Set the COG in motion.


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