Time for Whatcom County to protect its water resources

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 21, 2013 

When it rains, it pours. You won't miss the water 'til the well runs dry. Don't make waves. You can't squeeze water from a stone. Fish out of water. Walking on thin ice. Like water off a duck's back. Madder than a wet hen. Ducks in a row.

Our culture has so many proverbs and metaphors about water that I could write this column just by stringing them together.

You may have heard that Whatcom County has, again, violated the state Growth Management Act -- "when it rains, it pours!" This time, the issue is the county's failure to protect water quality and quantity ("you won't miss the water 'til the well runs dry"). What happened? Who made waves about water, and why?

It all began, really, back in 1997, when the state legislature amended the Growth Management Act to clarify the planning goals for "rural" areas. "Rural" areas aren't farm or forest lands, and they aren't cities. They're the areas "in between."

Whatcom County has more of this in-between "rural" land than agricultural land, and county planning allows enough new homes to be built in these "rural" areas to accommodate the county's entire projected population growth between now and 2029.

The question is: will there be enough water? That 1997 law said that the county "shall" protect "surface water and groundwater resources" in rural areas. Development must be "compatible with fish habitat" and "consistent with protection of surface water and groundwater." After all, one of the goals of the Growth Management Act is to "protect the environment and enhance the state's high quality of life," including "water quality, and the availability of water."

The problem is that, here in Whatcom County, Growth Management Act requirements are like water off a duck's back. The county has never implemented the 1997 law. Instead, it's been fighting against it (and losing) for most of the past eight years. Rather than working to protect the county's high quality of life, it's now tangled in a web of invalidity rulings, noncompliance findings and court cases.

As part of this ongoing saga, the state Growth Management Hearings Board recently looked at water issues in Whatcom County. Here's what it found:

Surface waters - our lakes and rivers - are almost all "closed" to further withdrawals, either all year or during the dry summer months. In-stream flow requirements for salmon are not met. Fish are, literally, out of water.

Around 75 percent of the county's farmers don't have enough water rights for their agricultural needs. You can't squeeze water from a stone, and if we want a strong, healthy farm economy, we're walking on thin ice.

The Sumas-Blaine aquifer, the drinking water source for around 20,000 people in northern Whatcom County, has some of the worst nitrate pollution in the state. Drayton Harbor is the second-most polluted shellfish growing area.

The board concluded that the county has not protected its water resources. Two proverbs from other places in the world may best explain the board's decision:

1. "Filthy water cannot be washed" -- West Africa

The board found that "current science-based studies conclude that most water resource degradation in the Puget Sound region and Whatcom County in particular can be attributed to land use and land development policies."

Specifically, the board noted that several county policies, including allowing "self-inspection" of septic systems and permitting rural residential lots to be 100 percent paved over, lead to well-documented water quality problems.

2. "When you drink the water, remember the spring" -- China

Water users are supposed to have state water right permits. The one exception is "exempt wells." No state permit is needed to sink a 5,000-gallon well, even in closed watersheds, and even if all of the water already "belongs" to farmers.

Whatcom County allows exempt wells anywhere in the county. Observing that "rural development continues to draw groundwater from the shallow aquifers that are responsible for 70 percent of base (stream) flows," the board noted that the county continues to grant building permits even where water is not legally available. The board found that the county's policies violate the Growth Management Act.

What will happen next? The county has the opportunity to get its ducks in a row. Rather than getting madder than a wet hen about the board's decision, the county needs to focus on protecting our water resources. After all, as Leonardo da Vinci said, "Water is the driving force of all nature."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Melious is an attorney and a professor in Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University. She represented local citizens in Hirst v. Whatcom County, the Growth Management Act action described in this article. The Growth Management Hearings Board's decision can be found on the Board's website, at http://www.gmhb.wa.gov/LoadDocument.aspx?did=3321.

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