The Gristle

Wet Work
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WET WORK: In the nexus between land and water, one must contemplate the unseen—below surface aquifers and groundwater, the interconnectivity of these systems, and how they all work together to feed our streams and wetlands. The state Dept. of Ecology understood these flows and, in the 1980s, closed most watershed basins in this region to seasonal, and in many cases year-round, withdrawals; yet the agency still allowed private wells as an exemption to that policy because nearly any imaginable transformative, consumptive use of water is considered a beneficial use under state law. Whatcom County Council exploded this dichotomy into catastrophe.

According to logs and reports, the county has permitted 1,650 wells since 1997 in basins closed to withdrawal. Testament to a diminished resource, the quality of these new wells is uniformly terrible, with nearly three quarters of sampled wells exceeding health standards for nitrate concentrations. In roughly the same period—a decade after the passage of the state’s Growth Management Act, which attempts to direct growth into developed areas with water service—County Council created nearly 1,800 new development rights in underserved rural areas, allowed dozens of non-farm uses in the county’s agricultural lands, and approved a comprehensive plan that would allow all of the county’s projected growth for the next 20 years into those rural areas.

The Gristle had noted last week an emerging meme among candidates for county office where they’ve sworn they’ll defend these decisions against “special interests” who’ve challenged this folly.

Large among “special interests” these candidates will ignore must surely rank farmers, who produce the county’s crop yield, a business that generated $330 million in 2012 in the most agriculturally productive county in western Washington.

At a recent water supply forum, farmers testified that among the many pressures that face them, access to water is perhaps their greatest concern. They’re caught in a vice between the holders of senior water rights—the cities and tribes, and the Public Utility District that serves heavy industry—and the many thousands of exempt wells that draw county groundwater without a right to that water. These wells, which drain water from agriculture, serve the individual rural homeowners and property owners these council candidates vow they will protect from other interests.

Are rural homeowners and property owners squatters and thieves? No, of course not; but perhaps this serves as a thought exercise to help illustrate the disordered priorities of some who seek county office. What are they vowing to protect? The disintegration of county farms!

Many farmers have a water right impaired by the oversubscription of subordinate water claims by rural homeowners. Other farmers do not hold a clear water right, and they are even more imperiled by the oversubscription of wells.

One potential solution to the problem might be a specialized transfer of development rights (TDR) program. A useful tool in directing development where you’d prefer it, TDR implementation in Whatcom County has stalled, first, because no pressure has been applied through county planning policy to direct development from here to there; second, because anti-government anti-planners have failed to create the higher-density receiving areas for those transfers. What farmers like Marty Maberry—owner of the county’s largest berry farm and vice chair of Whatcom Farm Friends, a “special interest” advocacy group—proposed, though, is a transfer of development rights to acquire a water right.

“Call it an extinction of a development right,” Maberry explained, to acquire certainty in a uncertain, oversubscribed resource desperately needed by agriculture.

Whatcom Farm Friends broadens the concept into a Natural Resources Marketplace, where certain development rights and wetland and carbon mitigation credits might be put into a “bank” to purchase other offsets like water contracts or leases for legal water use. The overarching problem with the concept is the county cannot trade what it does not own; and water rights are adjudicated by the state, with severe controls on transfers. To say the path is unclear on how one might go about extinguishing a development right to gain a water right is a vast understatement.

Farm Friends and other “special interest” groups have been struggling for some time with an enormous number of lots sprinkled throughout the county ag and rural lands that hold development rights. Each one of these holds potential to erode county agriculture through encroachment (neighbors find working farms noisy and smelly) and conversion (through land speculation) to residences.

These latent development rights, conferred by corrosive council land-use decisions, lurk like unexploded bombs across the landscape. To defuse them under Washington law you’d need to purchase or transfer these development rights. Groups like Farm Friends have struggled for years on ideas that might defuse them. Now council may encumber this problem much worse by granting—at the encouragement of land speculators and property flippers—hundreds of new development rights for industrial slaughterhouses as an accessory use in the county’s ag zone. Depending on how the final slaughterhouse upzone is framed, these new accessory uses could confer a monetary value on 88,000 acres that must then be extinguished to solve issues like water access.

Will hundreds of slaughterhouse wet works be built? No, of course not; but it is a land use right with a created monetary value, even as the county struggles to close the conditions of hundreds of other monetized land values they’ve created.

In the nexus between land and water, you’ll find County Council’s muddied thinking.

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