The Gristle

Salmon Need Water

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

SALMON NEED WATER: Water rights for the Nooksack River appear to be headed to court.

Following decades of inaction and indecision by local watershed planning groups, the state Legislature in 2019 directed the Department of Ecology “to assess and explore opportunities to resolve water rights uncertainties and disputes through adjudications in selected basins where tribal senior water rights, unquantified claims, and similar uncertainties about the seniority, quantity, and validity of water rights exist.” Ecology completed that assessment and with the assistance of a project manager with expertise in water law produced a report in the fall of last year that recommended court adjudication to resolve water right uncertainties and disputes.

“Solutions to competing demands for water—for fish, for farming, and for people—are stymied by the lack of a complete inventory and formal court determination of all the rights to use water under Washington’s laws,” Ecology concluded in their report.

“Adjudication,” the agency explained, “is a process that brings all water users in a watershed into one big court process that leads to full and fair water management by confirming legal rights to use water. The process legally and permanently determines everyone’s water rights in that area. It creates certainty around water use and helps secure water for future use.”

The agency’s recommendation supports a position long sought by the tribes—with their obvious and powerful senior rights’ claims to water, and a pressing desire for a ruling on a matter Washington water law does not adequately address: A nonconsumptive water use, water left in streams for ecological purposes—including water that allows fish to thrive.

“Water rights have been issued in the Nooksack Watershed for more than 100 years, and as a result most water in the watershed is already legally spoken for or ‘appropriated,” Ecology explained. “Increasing demands for water over time—from ongoing population growth, agriculture, and other consumptive uses—have resulted in lower summer streamflows in many areas of the watershed.”

Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe hailed the recommendation, and this week launched a joint outreach campaign, Salmon Need Water, to help educate the community about the importance of water for salmon, and the need to support an end to decades of uncertainty over water rights in the Nooksack basin.

“The Nooksack basin faces diminishing runs of salmon, a changing climate, and a lack of clarity about water,” the tribes noted in their press release. “Adjudication, which simply means a formal court judgement on a disputed matter, is the only tool in Washington to permanently fix this. People have been trying to sort through competing claims of water in the Nooksack basin for decades, and it hasn’t worked. An adjudication brings certainty and solutions to make sure we have water for salmon, for people, and for local farms.

“In times of plenty,” tribal leaders note, “all water rights holders may be able to put their water to full beneficial use, but, in times of shortage, junior water right holders may be required to restrict (or curtail) their water use. This system is designed to ensure that junior water rights holders do not damage (or impair) the rights of those who are senior.”

For the tribes in particular, the 1974 Boldt decision acknowledges their right to fish. It is an empty right if there are no fish to catch, so adjudication may be seen as a means to close a circle put to paper half a century ago.

“The Nooksack River has sustained Lummi people since the beginning of time,” Lawrence Solomon, Chairman of Lummi Nation, said. “As Salmon People, we have for generations depended on the resources the Nooksack provides.

“As the first people of this land, tribes have first rights. It is our inherent and sacred responsibility to uphold our treaty rights to ensure our children and the next generation may maintain our ancestral way of life, with the Nooksack River.”

Farms are among the heaviest users of the Nooksack River resource among the estimated 5,400 claimants to water use in the basin—and for their part, farmers are taking the matter of adjudication seriously.

In an announcement earlier in March, Whatcom Family Farmers announced the farming advocacy organization would represent farmers in the Nooksack River’s South Fork Basin in anticipated water settlement and drainage management talks.

“While six Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs) united under the Ag Water Board of Whatcom County represent farmers in the main stem of the Nooksack River basin, farmers along the South Fork do not have a similar organization to advocate for their interests in cooperative watershed management actions,” Dillon Honcoop, the organizations communications manager noted in a press release.

“The case would amount to an extensive lawsuit against all water users in the basin, forcing each to argue their case for water access in court,” Honcoop noted. The joint action will ensure some farmers aren’t locked out of the process.

Whatcom Family Farmers, the Ag Water Board of Whatcom County, and other individuals, groups and agencies in Whatcom County oppose Ecology’s adjudication plan, and urge the state to instead support a negotiated settlement process that brings the community together to collaborate on real solutions for the Nooksack Basin.

“We have listened to farmers, and they have said they need a water bank, or exchange, to move water rights where they are needed. Adjudication is how that happens,” Katherine Romero, General Manager of the Nooksack Tribe said.

Describing the process, Ecology notes, “The law provides that Ecology identifies a water source (such as a watershed with a major river and its tributaries and groundwater). Then, Ecology files an action in court, and joins all pertinent water users into the court process before a local judge. Water users submit their claims, and Ecology gathers extensive information about water use. Ecology then makes recommendations to the court, and the court issues a final decree listing all rights in order of priority. Water users can negotiate settlement agreements and recommend them to the court for inclusion in the court’s decree.”

The decision and settlement creates a certitude long delayed and long overdue.

“Adjudication is the best chance these farms have to identify available water and secure water for their future,” Ecology observed.

Past Columns
Third Time’s A Charm

April 14, 2021

Mid-Point

March 17, 2021

Carbon Pricing

March 3, 2021

‘Stop The Steal’

February 17, 2021

Camp 210

February 3, 2021

A capricious flower

January 20, 2021

‘More Work To Do’

January 6, 2021

Pathways for Pathogens

December 23, 2020

Make A Difference

December 9, 2020

Down to the Wire

November 25, 2020

Blue Wave 2020

November 11, 2020

Dark Deeds

October 28, 2020

Fire and Water

October 14, 2020

Defining Family

September 30, 2020

Smoke and Acrimony

September 16, 2020

Housing Saves Lives

September 2, 2020

Increments

August 19, 2020

In the Mail

August 5, 2020

Experience Matters

July 22, 2020

Momentum

July 8, 2020

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11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

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11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

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11:00am

“Origins and Evolutions: Five Generations” can be seen from 11am-4pm Tues.-Thurs., and by appointment, at least through May 22 at Gallery Syre, 465 Stuart Rd. The show gathers together…

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11:00am

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11:00am

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Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

Spring Juried Exhibit and More

12:00pm

A “Spring Juried Exhibit,” “Winter Textile Explorations,” Lisa McShane’s “A Decade of Landscapes,” and Ron Pattern’s “The Seasonal Forest” can be viewed from 12pm-4:30pm Thursdays through…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

An Artist's Universe

10:00am

View painter and mixed-media master David Syre’s latest installation, “An Artist’s Universe,” hanging throughout the corridors, lobby and dining room of Hotel Bellwether and the Lighthouse…

McKnight and DeLacy

10:00am

Mixed-media works by Bainbridge Island-based artist Aaron McKnight and sculptures by Marceil DeLacy can be viewed from 10am-5pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at Smith &…

Briggs Shore at Good Earth

11:00am

Vases, planters and drinking vessels by Briggs Shore will be on display and for sale from 11am-5pm Mondays through Saturdays (closed Tuesdays) and 12pm-5pm Sundays through April 30 at Good…

Whatcom Art Market

11:00am

Works by as many as 45 Whatcom Art Guild members can be viewed from 11am-5pm Tuesdays through Sundays at Whatcom Art Market, 1103 11th St.

Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present

11:00am

The fifth annual “Tulip Poster Artists, Past and Present” exhibit can be seen from 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday through May 2 in Anacortes at the Scott Milo Gallery, 420 Commercial Ave.…

Scatter Sunshine

11:00am

From 11am-5pm Wednesday through Sunday, visit La Conner’s Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum, 703 S. Second St. Currently on display are “Scatter Sunshine: La Conner in Bloom…

The Work of Jesus Guillén

11:00am

“The Work of Jesus Guillen: An Artistic Legacy of Love and Courage” can be seen from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through May 2 in La Conner at the Skagit County Historical Museum, 501 S.…

Rock, Paper, Paint

11:00am

“Rock, Paper, Paint” shows from 11am-4pm Fridays through Sundays through April 25 in Edison at i.e. gallery, 5800 Cains Court. The exhibit features new “drop” oil paintings by Allen Moe, rock…

Sculpture Northwest Exhibit

11:00am

The works of 15 Sculpture Northwest artists can be viewed both indoors and out from 11am-5pm Fridays through Sundays (and by appointment) through April 23 on Camano Island at Matzke Fine Art…

A Road Well Traveled

12:00pm

“Max Benjamin: A Road Well Traveled” can be seen from 12pm-4pm Thursdays through Sundays at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St. The solo exhibit featuring the work of the…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…

Art-iversary Exhibit

10:00am

From 10am-5:30pm Mondays through Saturdays through April 30, celebrate 20 years of ownership for Sheri Wright of Fourth Corner Frames, 311 W. Holly St. A wide variety of works are for sale as…

Seeds of Culture at Whatcom Museum

12:00pm

View “Seeds of Culture: The Portraits and Voices of Native American Women,” “Fluid Formations: The Legacy of Glass in the Pacific Northwest,” “Jac Trautman: The Specter of the Indigenous,”…