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The Gristle

Letters From Lummi

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

LETTERS FROM LUMMI I: Mayor Kelli Linville pulled from the Bellingham City Council agenda this week two agreements that could potentially serve city water drawn from new diversion points on the lower Nooksack River to the City of Lynden and the Public Utilities District #1 of Whatcom County. In pulling the items, the mayor explained that the dynamics and details of those agreements were not made sufficiently clear by staff in their original presentations to council. The purpose and the controls that might govern such agreements were therefore not sufficiently clear to council, and the state agencies that had originally approached the city and suggested that the city’s large municipal water right might help solve countywide water problems needed to step up and more transparently and fully make their case to the public.

“There needs to be more public discussion about the framework by which these two items were requested by the Dept. of Ecology and the Dept. of Health” as part of overall watershed planning, Mayor Linville told council. “There seems to be a little confusion, and I would prefer that there be no confusion about what the city is trying to do.”

The proposal predates Linville’s administration and several others, described in a May, 2000, paper jointly produced by the cities of Bellingham and Lynden, the PUD, and Dept. of Ecology. The PUD updated its assessment of north county water problems in 2010.

“The idea has been around a while,” Linville admitted afterward. “I just nudged it forward. Now I prefer the state to take the next steps.”

Essentially, the agreements would allow the City of Bellingham to move its existing right to draw large quantities of water from the Nooksack River to the places where Lynden and the PUD also currently draw their water. In exchange for that capacity, the city could lease back to these entities water for beneficial purpose. One beneficial purpose outlined by staff would be to improve—through direct service to water associations or recharge of aquifers or other means—the water quality of numerous household wells in the rural county that currently exceed health standards for nitrates. Nitrate levels increase as a consequence of over-withdrawal from aquifers, the over-subscription of groundwater withdrawals in Whatcom County. In putting its right to Nooksack River withdrawals to immediate and beneficial use, Bellingham would, in turn, assert and protect its continued water right into the future.

Properly constructed, the agreements could be of benefit to improving instream flows and access to water by agriculture. Improperly constructed, with insufficient safeguards, the agreements could worsen Whatcom’s water woes, potentially delivering to land speculators continued license to sprawl.

Lynden has a sorrowful history of inadequate water supply and water treatment, and has proven unable to solve the neighboring nitrates problem on its own. In June, Lynden broke ground on construction of a new water treatment plant at an estimated completed cost of $26.9 million, funded in part through a loan from the county’s Economic Development Investment program, exhausting EDI for other purposes. In a potential alternative to Lynden, the PUD could wheel drinking water into the north county from Sumas to supply those homes and associations. Bellingham’s withdrawals could augment either plan.

Skeptics and critics fear the plan would simply encourage more growth, more over-subscription and continued noncompliance with state growth goals. Indeed, the county’s problem with the water quality in wells flows directly from decades of the county’s scofflaw indifference to planning for growth in areas actually supplied by water. Even at its most benign, the plan papers over the county’s folly and kicks the consequences of water supply down the road a few more years.

Lummi Nation, in particular, sent the City of Bellingham a strongly worded letter earlier this month, objecting to the proposed agreements as they foreclose upon ongoing tribal assertions over water rights.

“Until our senior water rights are protected, Lummi Nation will oppose a proposed change in place of use of the City of Bellingham water right permit,” wrote Tim Ballew, chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

While Linville admitted she had not spoken directly to the Nooksack Indian Tribe, both tribes seek a ruling in federal court that would assert their right to a non-consumptive use of water to enhance their fisheries. Nooksack Chairman Bob Kelly speculated that unilateral action by the cities and PUD could harm a more comprehensive discussion of water rights and water use.

“The proposed change would be a shortsighted and exclusive solution only for a few,” Ballew warned. “It could essentially solve Lynden’s water supply needs and cure Lynden’s past and present water rights violations, while reducing instream flows in a section of the river that presently fails to meet minimum flow requirements for fish.

“The Lummi Nation suspects that the cost of reclaiming and reusing water by the City of Lynden or treating contaminated wells near Lynden has been judged to be too expensive,” Ballew speculated. “As a result, the City of Bellingham and the City of Lynden are now proposing to shift costs from the people who will benefit from the use of the water to the natural resources that will suffer from the loss of the water.

“The entire amount of water represented by the City of Bellingham’s water right is currently instream and the existing flow levels are still not being met—simple math demonstrates that the proposed additional points of diversion will make matters worse.”

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