The Gristle

‘Water, Water Everywhere’

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

‘WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE:’ If doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, what does hearing the same thing repeatedly and thinking it means something else define? Delusion?

In rural Whatcom County the math is pretty simple: Count up all of the existing, on-paper claims to water and compare that to the volume of water flowing in the Nooksack River. In 2014, the first number is already larger than the second number. Realize, then, that the Nooksack River is the mighty recharge engine for nearly all water systems in rural Whatcom, including the aquifers for wells, and you come away with a fairly grim prognosis for the future of growth in those rural areas.

The last of an admittedly excellent series of forums on water quality and supply issues ended last week with a summary of that math and its implications. Fittingly, the forum was held at Lummi Nation, arguably the largest holder of an actual, for-real water right outside Whatcom’s municipal governments and public utility district. Fittingly, the series was sponsored by Rome Grange—the granges served as the state’s great populist organizing circle for agricultural communities early in the last century, and may serve in that role again early in this century.

While little new was presented through the forums, they served the purpose of gussying up Whatcom’s abundant collection of nefarious bad actors on water issues and forcing them into a room together to make nice and speak politely, even coherently with policy­makers, technical staff and the tribes. It’s hard to hate people you talk to, and therefore the forums do serve this beneficial purpose. But the peacocks were on proud display last week, filling a chamber that could seat more than a hundred people—the property rightistas, the teahadists, the cranks, kooks, crooks, frauds and goons mingling with a smattering of office holders and office seekers. Almost entirely absent was the progressive environmentalist community, absent save the spare grizzled white-maned eco-warrior who has grown old waiting for Whatcom to become wise. Sadly, the passive boycott of this event by the progressive cohort speaks volumes about the efficacy of formats such as these to come together to solve the county’s water problems. Their absence strands these forums and leaves them vulnerable to become political organizing tools for bad actors around issues of water rights.

Told the same thing repeatedly about the physical, on-the-ground reality of the availability of water and the need for central, cooperative planning to address it, many listeners instead heard a bloody war whoop to double down and entrench more deeply into their unfortified bunkers, eager to play poker with a pack of deuces and jokers. Alongside them—perhaps once one of them—beleageured farmers, beset on every side, sagged in despair. That game cannot be won.

The brightest boon to emerge from the forums—the creation of watershed improvement districts (WIDs) as an instrument to help organize and finance water solutions—also holds potential as the bleakest bane.

Conceived by the Legislature early in the last century as a means to help irrigate arid yet fertile lands in the eastern portion of the state, WIDs are special purpose taxing districts that hold a broad range of powers to finance, construct and maintain water systems and the products of water systems, including hydroelectric power generation. Problematically, they also carry the authority and standing to file legal challenges against enabling governments.

Watershed improvement districts have proven of benefit in helping to organize and subordinate various water claims and water uses for hundreds of landowners in Bertrand Creek and Ten Mile Creek sub-basins in the northern county. Plans might proliferate WIDs throughout the Nooksack drainage area.

Watershed improvement districts are, however, fiercely non-democratic in their construction, created by petition of just 50 landowners or a single owner of 50 percent of the land in the basin. They are intensely non-transparent in their operation, with few citizens knowing these narrow and technical districts even exist, let alone understanding their powers and authority and how that meshes with enabling municipal governments. They’re also inefficient, duplicating in both cost and action strategies more suitably spread over the larger drainage basin. And perhaps most troublesome, they provide a mischief-making matchbox full of legal thorns that bad actors might use to entangle progressive policy for several lifetimes. And note again: The bad actors, the malefactors who have gummed up solutions for more than two decades, are the ones paying keenest attention to the formation of these districts.

On a more technical note, these consensus-based districts formed by landowners who are not necessarily the owners of water rights operate contrary to, and potentially unwind Western water law, a quirky and greedy framework that assigns greatest rights to earliest claims.

G.I. James, representing the Lummi hosts, told the story of the chinook, the most succulent and threatened of the Salish salmonids, and the efforts to save them.

“We were going to rebuild chinook in 10 years, and we’re damned near 30 years into the rebuilding cycle,” James said. “Down south, King, Snohomish, Pierce started Tri-County to prevent the listing of chinook. We had great meetings and a lot of people, no production. So, O.K., that’s not working; so let’s start a shared strategy. Let’s bring in Kitsap County and Thurston County. Let’s go after not only chinook, but chum and coho. Same thing—a lot of people, no actions, no outcomes. So now, ah, ‘Let’s do Puget Sound Partnership. Let’s clean up all of Puget Sound!’”

“We couldn’t do chinook. We couldn’t do chinook and coho. The lesson is, if at first you fail, make it bigger.”

Our sense is, WIDs make things bigger on a very small scale.

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