Water availability should be considered in growth planning

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 8, 2013 

Whatcom County has a water problem, and it's a big one. Even with all the rain we get, our streams and rivers often do not have enough water for people to drink, farmers to irrigate, and to support fish populations in the summer and fall. In several of our watersheds, water isn't available for new users because this lack of "instream flow." And, we are learning that less water in streams could also signal a lack of groundwater.

This problem is not new, and it's been building in intensity for years. The Lummi Nation has been working to compel action through a 2011 petition to the federal government to determine the quantity of water to which they are entitled based on their 1855 treaty. That petition is still bumping around the halls of Washington, D.C. but it is likely that we will know more soon.

The fact remains that in many parts of our county we don't have enough water for the fish, farmers, industries and everyday users in Whatcom County. Futurewise believes that rather than grousing about facts we cannot change, we need to turn around and face this problem together.

To make this happen, Futurewise and local partners have asked the state to require the consideration of water availability as our county plans for rural population growth. This request is based on a recent decision in Kittitas County that required planning for water because that county also faced inadequate water availability. We anticipate the state will issue its decision in the next couple weeks, but regardless of the outcome, can't we agree that it makes sense to plan to put people where there is water?

Think about it. Water is a fundamental element of life. Without clean drinking water, we cannot live.

Many of the water associations that provide the drinking water needed by rural homes have aging infrastructure that will be very expensive to replace. The water from many of the wells that tap into the Sumas aquifer have high levels of nitrate contamination, and water testing has shown that pesticides may also be present in some of the wells.

While we are waiting for a ruling from the state, opportunities for thinking ahead when it comes to water are abundant. The county, for example, is currently working on updating plans and policies for our urban growth areas - the places, mostly our cities, that have been designated for a majority of our homes, jobs and amenities. Focusing the majority of growth inside urban growth areas is an important requirement of state law that helps protect our remaining farm and forest land while reducing costs for taxpayers to extend infrastructure like water, sewers, roads and schools. It only makes sense for county and city planners to consider water availability when planning for urban growth. If we don't start planning with water in mind now, we will end up paying for it later with higher taxes and increased service costs.

No one has all the information about water availability, but we do have enough information today to make informed decisions and take smart actions. We have an updated "water budget" for the Lower Nooksack Basin that provides information about how much water is cycled through the watershed throughout the year. We also have information about watersheds that are and aren't meeting instream flows for fish and records of contaminated groundwater.

We hope the county and all the cities will take a hard look at water and plan accordingly. Not incorporating information about water into long-range planning is irresponsible and will cost us all in the long term.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Blystone is director of the Whatcom Chapter of Futurewise, the local chapter of a statewide land-use advocacy organization. Futurewise, futurewise.org/Whatcom, works to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting working farms, working forests, and shorelines.

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