Whatcom Water

Problems and prospects

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Water resource planners continue to meet to update the county’s Watershed Management Plan, a complex and often cumbersome attempt to inventory and manage Whatcom County’s diverse water systems.

Whatcom County has serious, long-term water quantity problems. Fortunately, solutions to these problems are at hand. Unfortunately, we largely ignore these problems and, therefore, are not adopting needed solutions.


The Nooksack River basin is home to several salmon species. These fish are an essential part of our food supply, economy, heritage and culture.

But streamflows during the summer are too low to support healthy salmon runs.

Low flows are a result of too much demand chasing too little supply.

Insufficient flows are one of many factors (including habitat loss, poor water quality and ocean conditions) that have led to dramatic declines in salmon runs. Therefore, several species (Chinook, steelhead, and bull trout) are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

A related problem is failure to meet tribal treaty obligations.

These legal responsibilities to the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe derive from the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, which guaranteed tribal water rights sufficient to maintain harvestable salmon populations. Because these rights have never been quantified we don’t know how much water needs to flow in the Nooksack River and its tributaries to meet our legal obligations to the tribes.

The only legal evidence we have on how much water fish need is an instream flow rule set by the Washington State Dept. of Ecology (Ecology) in 1985.

Technically, the Ecology rule sets flow levels below which no more water can be withdrawn from the river or its tributaries; but the agency’s rule does not explicitly determine optimal flow rates for fish. That rule specifies, for about 50 locations within the Nooksack River basin, minimum flows for every two-week period throughout the year.

These minimums are usually not met during the summer months.

More recent work by Utah State University (USU) suggests that these regulatory minimum flows should be much higher, which implies that actual flows are even further below what fish (and other wildlife) need.

Although I emphasize the importance of these calculated instream flow numbers needed for a healthy environment, others disagree with my interpretation. They note that the ideal numbers would not be met even if human water consumption was entirely eliminated. They focus on the need to increase streamflows during critical periods and not on the absolute goal, which they consider theoretical.

Addressing these low-flow problems requires a detailed understanding of who uses water, for what purposes, in what amounts, and when.

In principle, such data exist for all customers of all water utilities—municipalities, water districts and water associations.

But no entity collects, organizes, analyzes and reports on these data. And such water-meter data do not exist for farms or rural households that draw water from wells.

Agricultural irrigation uses—by far—more water than any other sector of our economy. And irrigation occurs during the summer, when supplies are the lowest.

The lack of water meters for agricultural water use requires us to rely on estimation methods that often disagree with each other and are of unknown accuracy.

For various reasons, most beyond the control of farmers, roughly 40 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation lacks authorization from Ecology. This is a serious legal/regulatory problem that has existed for more than three decades with little Ecology effort at a systemic resolution.

The mismatch between water supply and demand is almost certain to get worse because of two factors.

First, as Whatcom County population continues to grow at about 2 percent each year, the demand for water for our homes, businesses and factories will also grow.

Second, the adverse effects of climate change will continue to increase demand for irrigation water, as summer air temperatures increase and summer rainfall declines. Climate change will also continue to decrease summer supplies as glaciers shrink. The North Cascade glacier mass is about 30 percent less today than it was three decades ago. As snowpack drops, and streamflows decline.

Finally, state water law is a complicated, inconsistent mashup of legislation and regulation dating back more than 100 years.

A key obstacle to implementing solutions is relinquishment.

Farmers who do not use all of their water right for five or more years are subject to relinquishment. This means that Ecology is obligated to take back that unused portion of a water right, a serious loss of property rights for farmers. Relinquishment is thus a powerful disincentive to improve irrigation efficiency.

Other complications in water law inhibit adoption of measures that would otherwise improve streamflows at critical times of the year.


Although it is much easier to identify and explain problems than it is to articulate solutions, solutions are available for Whatcom County water-quantity problems.

The key challenge is for more of us—citizens, and not just the experts—to recognize how serious and important these problems are and to press our political leaders to adopt solutions.

Fortunately, the tools are at hand to increase water supplies and reduce water demands in key locations and at key times.

We need to quantify how much water salmon and other wildlife need in the creeks and mainstem at various times during the year.

We also need to specify the amount of water the two tribes are entitled to for use on their reservations and that must remain in the river and streams to meet treaty obligations. Much of the technical work needed to quantify these biological and legal rights was done several years ago by USU.

We need to review these results and work toward a consensus among the two tribes, farmers, Ecology, and others to arrive at a set of agreed-upon numbers on minimum instream flows.

Having agreed on the amounts of water that must remain in the three forks, Nooksack River and its tributaries, we then need to determine how much water can be taken out for human use.

Given the importance of agricultural irrigation, we most need good data (not estimates) on how much water different crops use, where and when.

The absence of publicly available water-meter data means that our knowledge of agricultural water use is based on estimates. Ecology collects meter data from some farmers but appears to do little with these data. These estimates rely on methods developed decades ago for much dryer and warmer climates (e.g., eastern Washington). So we should meter at least a representative sample of Whatcom County farms and/or better use the data Ecology already collects from farmers.

We also need to develop and apply forecasting methods to estimate the effects of population growth and climate change on future water supplies (decreasing) and water demand (increasing).

These discussions/negotiations, water-use data, and forecast results together will indicate how deficits in the water supply-demand balance will worsen over time. This deficit can then be filled with either new supplies or greater water-use efficiency (WUE).

Because so little effort historically was devoted to efficiency, I think WUE should be our primary focus in filling the supply/demand gap. And here, too, we should focus on agricultural irrigation because it uses so much water and does so at exactly the times of greatest need.

For example, a big gun irrigator might use 500 gallons/minute, compared to about 200 gallons/day for a typical household.

We have three broad ways to improve efficiency.

First, farmers could, depending on the crop, switch equipment to types that are more efficient (for example, from overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation, which might cut water use by 20 percent). Indeed, many farmers have switched from overhead to drip irrigation as they turned to berry production and away from corn and grass.

Second, we could improve maintenance practices (for example, identify and fix leaks in distribution lines, inspect and clean nozzles).

Finally, we could improve irrigation scheduling practices. For example, automated, internet-based systems use historical weather data and forecasts to calculate an irrigation schedule for the next seven days—how many hours a day to irrigate, during what four hours, and at what flow rates.

The second and third approaches take time to learn new methods but require no capital investments, so they can be adopted quickly.

Efficiency improvements are available in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors also and should be pursued.

But the key, in my view, is agriculture. Without an adequate resolution of relinquishment farmers will be reluctant to reduce their water use.

Until the law is changed, farmers could put saved water into a water bank, which would protect it from relinquishment.

In addition to these efficiency options, many supply options have been explored in Whatcom County but not yet widely adopted. These include: (1) conversion of water rights from surface water to groundwater (which spreads the impact of the water withdrawal over time, rather than concentrating the effect in the dry irrigation season), (2) pumping and piping water from one location to another, and (3) building reservoirs to store winter flows for use during the summer.

For example, the Birch Bay Water and Sewer District drilled several test wells in a deep aquifer near Blaine. The amounts and quality of water from these wells are good enough to be able to provide water elsewhere in the county.

Farmers are testing the benefits of pumping water from their wells at the end of the irrigation season and putting that water into Bertrand Creek to increase streamflows in late summer and early fall.

Generally, we need a method to objectively compare the economic, environmental, regulatory and political costs and benefits of all the viable supply and demand options. We then need to work our way down the list, implementing the most cost-effective options first.

Better integrating land-use planning with water-resource planning would also yield major benefits.

A key option here is to develop and implement a program that allows/encourages farmers to trade development rights for water rights.

Because much of the land farmed in Whatcom County is zoned residential, it could be converted from farms to shopping malls and residential developments. One way to ensure that this land remains in agriculture would allow farmers to give up their right to develop their land in exchange for a valid water right.


Given the severity of our water problems and the availability of solutions, why has so little been done? I believe the key failure in Whatcom County is lack of institutional leadership.

A responsible agency such as Ecology or Whatcom County needs to step forward and take charge. Other entities—like the City of Bellingham, Public Utility District #1, Whatcom Conservation District, the tribes, and the county’s six agricultural watershed improvement districts—are likely to be active participants in such efforts if some other entity takes responsibility for pushing through a comprehensive strategy and package of measures and programs to resolve local water quantity problems.

We need to overcome the dichotomy between short-term political and economic costs versus long-term benefits.

Government entities will point to the many projects conducted over the years to address these problems. They will claim that I don’t give them enough credit for tackling tough and controversial issues.

Fair enough.

But I think a hodgepodge of individual projects does not add up to a coherent and effective strategy.

The work done to date, in my view, is piecemeal and merely nibbles around the edges of the problems.

Another response to my concern about lack of institutional leadership is that citizens are not demanding governmental attention to these problems.

This response is also correct—for most of us, water is a nonissue. Whenever we turn on the tap, clean water flows out. And our monthly water bills are manageable. What else matters to most of us?

Hopefully, more education and awareness will help us recognize the importance of saving salmon and other species and ensuring adequate, long-term supplies of clean water for fish, farms, and families.

Finally, the various interests in local water issues (the tribes, local governments, farmers, rural households, utilities, fishers, foresters and business) need to believe that negotiations on these complicated and controversial issues will be conducted in good faith. That is, all parties must believe that it is possible to develop and implement solutions that are win:win or at least share the costs of problem solving.

I thank Doug Allen, Henry Bierlink, Dan Eisses, Jon Hutchings, Hank Kastner, Dan Von Seggern, and Carl Weimer for their helpful comments in my draft of this article.

Eric Hirst has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University and spent 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He retired to Bellingham and remains passionately involved in water issues.

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