Farmers work on salmon restoration

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Farmers in Whatcom County are putting their money where their mouth is, literally.

As this summer’s record-setting heat waves showed the deepening threat posed by the changing climate, Whatcom farmers called for immediate community-wide collaboration on solutions for better management of Nooksack Basin water supply and stream flows to protect and restore critically endangered salmon and their habitat.

Now, local farmers and their partners are unveiling another new fish habitat restoration project completed just this month, reopening miles of salmon stream habitat on a tributary of the Nooksack River.

The project installed a state-of-the-art, fish-friendly floodgate that will allow salmon to again live and spawn in what is known as Duffner Ditch, which winds through productive farmland southwest of Lynden and connects with Bertrand Creek just before reaching the Nooksack River.

As a farming community, we are honored to be able to help restore salmon and protect stream and water resources that are an important part of the ecosystem where we live and grow food.

Although the Duffner project has been debated for a number of years, it gained significant steam when the local Floodplain Integration Team visited the site during the flood in February of 2020. Farmers, salmon advocates and flood engineers were able to collaborate on ideas that would benefit all the parties, and the needed funding soon followed.

The Bertrand Watershed Improvement District was proud to partner with Whatcom County, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Whatcom Conservation District, Drainage District #1, Diking District #4 and others to fund the effort.

With a price tag of over a half-million dollars, the project protects salmon during floods as well, automatically closing during high water to provide safe harbor for fish in the salmon stream.

Farmers also supplied land and support for the project. A stretch of Duffner Ditch was realigned to connect better with Bertrand Creek. During the construction Duffner’s water was diverted around the project, as crews carefully monitored to ensure minimal effects to the environment.

Four years ago the WID demonstrated with a pilot stream augmentation project that we can sustainably restore natural stream flow levels in Bertrand Creek, and this new project on Duffner Ditch shows their continuing commitment to restoring salmon and preserving a future for locally-grown food in Whatcom County.

This is why they came together as farmers and landowners to form the Watershed Improvement Districts—because we know a better future is possible for fish and farming if everyone works together as an entire Whatcom County community focused on restoring fish and protecting local food.

Farmers and other landowners in rural Whatcom County began forming WIDs several years ago, seeing the need to take more action on stream and water issues, and needing legal entities to be able to enter into the state and federal agreements necessary to accomplish many key projects.

A total of six separate WIDs across northern Whatcom County now represent most of the area’s agricultural land and a significant amount of the Nooksack River Basin.

The farmers and landowners in the respective districts tax themselves to fund projects like fish-friendly floodgates, stream augmentation, culvert replacements, and water quality monitoring.

The six WIDs coordinate their efforts under the Ag Water Board of Whatcom County (AWB) to keep their approaches consistent across the watershed.

While farmers are continuing their efforts at improving our local environment, a costly legal process is underway that may very well derail these efforts‚ the legal process of adjudication proposed by the state Department of Ecology.

If this scenario continues to move forward it will cause massive chaos and uncertainty for farmers wanting to protect and restore fish. Most of their resources will need to go toward their participation in this legal process. Good work such as the Duffner project will be threatened. The truth is, parties facing off in court aren’t in a particularly great position to participate in cooperative efforts to recognize and address everyone’s needs.

Collaboration is the only way we can get to the root of our water supply management issues. This kind of collaboration requires the mutual trust and communication of all parties, much like the Duffner project did.

Fred Likkel is executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers.

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