The threat of adjudication
Wednesday, June 9, 2021
My name is Hans Wolfisberg and I own and operate an organic dairy farm outside Lynden along the Nooksack River. The river is the lifeblood of my farm’s sustainable grazing practices, providing the necessary irrigation water during the hot summer months in order to maintain the certified organic standards developed for our farm by the USDA.
As it stands today, my family farm has junior irrigation water rights. This means that my ability to use water from the Nooksack River basin is dependent on the flow rate of the river, which is measured by the Department of Ecology.
On April 25, the Washington State Legislature earmarked funds for the state Department of Ecology to begin the slow process of sorting through water rights, both senior and junior, in the Nooksack River basin. This process is known as adjudication and will ultimately pit water rights holders against one another in the courts while costing the taxpayers millions of dollars from both sides.
The underlying concern that many contestants and persons involved in this adjudication of water rights have is that there truly isn’t enough research on the quantity and quality of water in the river to determine optimal salmon spawning and fish habitat conditions all along the Nooksack’s path through Whatcom County.
As I have lived alongside the Nooksack River for 25 years and observed the seasonal flows and levels of the river, it has become apparent to me that agriculture’s seasonal use of water from the river is the most sustainable process ongoing.
As the adjudication process proceeds, not only will it harm family farms like mine, but additionally put our towns, cities and industries—such as oil and gas refineries—in jeopardy of amending or forfeiting water access due to the outcome of legal rulings and not sound scientific evidence.
For example, during the months of September and October, the flow rates of the Nooksack are at a natural low point. Only the year-round water right holders (city and industry) are using water from our local watershed during this time. Our farmers who hold water rights rarely use any water beyond the end of August.
As it looks right now, Ecology’s concept of legal rulings for the adjudication process will be long, drawn out, and pull money out of the taxpayer’s pockets for decades. This, despite the fact that feasible solutions to the concerns about the water level in the river are within our grasp.
No judge or lawyer or jury has the capability to put more water in the river—only our community can do that.
Water rights issues are not unique to our local community and the Nooksack River basin. It is a convoluted topic, with many sides and perspectives, that exists all along the west coast.
The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe are key players in pushing a legal battle that favors their demands for certain water rights while pushing out Whatcom County’s farming community. However, I believe that the next steps we need to take start with working together in a spirit of collaboration, something we can’t do in court. This means allocating our financial resources wisely.
By working together we can determine the best steps that are needed. The rich heritage of our fish and our farms deserves this effort.
Hans Wolfisberg owns and operates an organic dairy farm outside Lynden.