On March 21, years of effort by many local water interests got results as Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws stated publicly that the proper vehicle for local public participation in water resource planning, known as the Water Resources Inventory Area No. 1 planning unit, should be restored to its statutory role per the state Watershed Planning Act.
Th Water Resources Inventory Area No. 1 is the Nooksack River basin and coastal drainages in Whatcom County.
The Whatcom Chapter of Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights believes this is now the most significant resource issue for the entire county, and that reasonable solutions can be achieved.
Why should we care? Water is key to property rights and economic vitality. Without water, land is useless, and resources such as salmon are threatened. Pending decisions by local, state and federal governments will seriously impact our future water usage, and the planning unit provides the best means for citizens to participate effectively in that process, without spending hours pouring over every detail.
While most citizen committees are only advisory, this law vests the planning unit with responsibility to approve planning documents, which cannot be amended later by county or state government. Thus, the Watershed Planning Act puts those who will be most impacted in the middle of the decision loop.
What's the underlying issue? Since the state established the current system of water rights in 1917, many water users have operated outside the boundaries of water law. A permit is required except for wells limited to certain uses and amounts. The state has refrained from enforcement, recognizing the economic and political impacts. That tolerance is likely to end soon, as demand for water increases. Our state's water rights system is called the doctrine of prior appropriation, or, "first in time, first in right." The rights of senior users, who put their water to use first, may not be impaired by junior users who come later.
The two local tribes hold the most senior rights, because they were here first. In the Yakima basin, through a court case that lasted decades, tribal claims were upheld and many feel the same outcome is possible here. There, new water users will soon have to buy water from a senior right holder, or do without. If and when the quantity due local tribes is determined, everyone else, even with a permit, will be junior. Their usage can be curtailed whenever instream flows fall below pre-determined levels.
To help resolve these issues, in 1999 Whatcom County agreed to become lead agency under the 1997 Watershed Planning Act, joining with Bellingham, the tribes and the Public Utility District, to form the planning unit. It is comprised of local, state and federal governments, along with large and small water systems, well owners, fishers, foresters, farmers, environment and business, all represented through caucuses.
The planning unit produced a preliminary plan, known as the 2005 Watershed Management Plan --Phase One, which was approved by the county council and the state in 2005. Among other things, this plan provided for confidential water rights negotiations with the tribes. After six years, those negotiations have collapsed. The tribes decided to go to court. The prospect of many water users losing their access to this vital resource looms. It is time for the planning unit to come back together and produce an updated plan.
Water has also become an issue now because during the past few years, Bellingham, the Public Utility Distric, Whatcom County and the two tribes decided the planning unit should become advisory only, ignoring its statutory authority to review and approve any such plan or amendments. When in June 2009, the planning unit refused that demand, those responsible for scheduling planning unti meetings simply stopped doing so.
Since then, through years of grassroots efforts, some planning unit members worked to educate and mobilize public support for its restoration. Executive Louws, after studying the issue, and consulting with the county attorney, has determined that the planning unit "has legal status" and has swung his support toward its renewed involvement. We hope other local officials will agree.
However, restoring this legally required and meaningful public participation to our water resource planning is not assured. Some elected and appointed officials seem reluctant to accept a significant role for citizens representing the many diverse and legitimate interests.
Check Hot Topics on our website for information: capr.us/whatcom. We urge you to become informed and work with the groups listed there, and others to help reach a fair and constructive resolution. Contact your elected representatives, ask them to follow the law and restore the planning unit to its proper role. These decisions will impact every person in Whatcom County, far into the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger Almskaar is a land use consultant and president of the Whatcom Chapter of Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights. Call him at 360-671-1324. Formed in 2009, the Whatcom group is part of a regional organization that began in King County in 2003 over a sensitive land rule that was eventually overturned by the state appellate courts. Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights now has chapters in 14 Washington and 10 California counties.