The Gristle

Tigers, in a Herd of Cats
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TIGERS, IN A HERD OF CATS: Flummoxed, Whatcom County Council last week stepped back from proposals that would place the creation of four special purpose taxing districts in front of north county voters early next year, postponing until later this month any endorsement of watershed improvement districts (WIDs) for the Drayton, Laurel, Sumas, and South Lynden drainage basins. Adding to council’s confusion, it was unclear whether they held much power to steer or brake the creation of these districts under Title 87 of the state code.

Council members were divided on whether they should delay their endorsement of the proposal, given there was so little they could do to influence it.

Representatives from the nascent Whatcom Ag District Coalition, a group of (initially) nine farmers who seized the initiative to form the districts, told council the WIDs are intended to allow agricultural landowners to address water quality, habitat, drainage, and water supply issues with other county and state stakeholders. Formed as special purpose taxing districts, the WIDs also hold potential to raise revenue sufficient to address those aims. Council was informed by legal staff that while they hold the authority to exclude from each district certain properties that may not benefit from the district (and therefore should not be taxed), they lack the authority to either alter the district boundaries or, indeed, prevent them from being formed.

For more than a decade, county watershed policy has been carried out under the aegis of the WRIA-1 planning unit, a broad assembly of various business and environmental stakeholders, local water districts and initiating governments. Authorized under that state’s Water Resources Act, WRIA planning has been clunky and frequently comatose, but at least had the benefit of being under the control of initiating governments that include the county and its cities.

It’s unclear at present how the new WIDs may interface with the WRIA process and county water resource planning in general. The creation of WIDs in the Bertram and Ten Mile drainage basins have enabled positive gains in resource planning and management, mostly through the subordination of competitive claims by district landowners. But clearly, nine farmers and their allies have gamed out a mechanism to create representative districts throughout the county’s northern tier that does an end run around the county’s initiating authority and, disquietingly, limits elected county government’s powers to define and control outcomes. The proposed WIDS in effect create a government-to-government relationship between the districts and the state.

Commenting on the proposals, the state Dept. of Ecology’s water resources program manager stressed that the WIDs do not create or convey any water rights to members of the district, nor do they affect the status of any existing water rights. They do not settle the outstanding issue of water rights and claims. As WID principal objectives are to improve water and drainage quality for agricultural landowners, the agency review waived a requirement that the petitioners demonstrate adequate probable sources of water supply “because no water is needed for the WIDs’ purposes.”

The structure and requirements of WIDs carry more restrictions and responsibilities than liberties to the district, representatives of the Ag District Coalition assured council, and Ecology has found WIDs—with their built-in funding potential and ability to tame competing interests—to be effective organizing tools in areas like the Yakima basin and Olympic Peninsula. Currently, there is no structure for Whatcom’s ag industry to solve the water resource problems created by agriculture. The WIDs provide this structure, they noted.

Yakima and the peninsula are admittedly a bit more homogeneous in claims and uses for water than fractious Whatcom, with its fierce construction lobby and highly organized (and easily agitated) cohort of rural residential well owners who are also smaller landowners in the proposed districts.

When formed, the four districts may join the other two in a Joint Board of Whatcom WIDs (JBWW), council learned in an Ag District Coalition presentation in August. The JBWW would coordinate with other appointed and elected boards and commissions, including flood control boards, diking and drainage improvement districts, and ag water associations. Pointedly, residential well owners are excluded from the farmer-controlled JBWW and, as conceived, may even be excluded from the vote that forms districts, restricted to agricultural landowners who control 4.5 or more acres in the district. As County Council learned, these homeowners can ask to be excluded from the tax burden; but they have no authority to be included as representative members of the WIDs.

Admittedly, the districts’ mission is not intended to serve rural residences, which nevertheless benefit from net improvements to the supply and quality of groundwater. But their formation and organization under the JBWW changes the power structure of planning under the old WRIA-1 process, strengthening the representation of agriculture and raising them unilaterally to the authority of the initiating governments. As their voice strengthens, do others weaken? Do they become tigers in the county’s herd of cats?

The Gristle has noted before the subtle cracks forming in the monolithic union of landowner and land broker interests that have powered local politics for most of the past five decades, as farmers—intelligent, committed business owners—have tumbled to the realization that they may have more in common and at stake with the fishers and tribes than with the strip-and-flip gang of resource ravagers, allies of convenience but not of necessity.

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