Nooksack River deal could set stage for shift of Bellingham water supply

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 22, 2013 

Bellingham diversion dam on Nooksack River

The city of Bellingham is considering a new agreement that would enable it to pull water out of the Nooksack River in Lynden and Ferndale, instead of at this existing Middle Fork diversion site much farther upstream.

THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - The city is considering a new agreement that would enable it to pull water out of the Nooksack River in Lynden and Ferndale, instead of at the existing Middle Fork diversion site much farther upstream.

The other parties to the deal would be the city of Lynden and the Whatcom County Public Utility District. Lynden and the PUD have existing river water intake facilities that the city could use. The Washington Department of Ecology also would have to give the new arrangement its blessing.

The people involved say there is no actual water transfer deal in the works, but the new arrangement - if approved - could be one small step toward a solution of countywide water rights issues that have bedeviled local governments for many years.

The Bellingham City Council got a look at the proposal at its Aug. 12 meeting. Council members decided to delay action pending further discussion at a Sept. 16 regular session.

When and if the affected governments approve, the new water withdrawal opportunity for Bellingham could be one small step toward a possible transfer of surplus Bellingham water rights to water users who need more. That includes both farmers in the greater Lynden area and private water associations north of Lynden whose well water exceeds state health standards for nitrate content.

The idea of shifting Bellingham water rights to other users is far from new.

In 2001, Lynden's municipal water consumption was well in excess of its own water right, and Lynden officials were hoping they might be able to buy some of Bellingham's unused water right for their own city. Since that time, Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis says the city has raised its water rates, and the resulting household conservation has brought Lynden's own water consumption back into line. He also acknowledged that Lynden's annual water use still exceeds its state-authorized limits in some years.

But now, Korthuis said, the immediate focus is on potential use of a portion of Bellingham's authorized water withdrawals to help solve problems for agriculture as well as for the water associations.

Many berry farmers have been relying on water withdrawals from Nooksack tributary creeks to keep the fruit growing, but that practice is being challenged by the Lummi and Nooksack Indian tribes. The tribes say there isn't enough water left in the creeks to support healthy salmon populations, and the farmers themselves acknowledge that they don't have legal rights to some of the water they are using.

Jon Hutchings, Bellingham's assistant public works director, said it is in Bellingham's interest to keep those farms viable in the north county. If the farms can't get the water they need, there will be economic pressure to convert the farmland to residential and commercial use, feeding the sprawl that Bellingham wants to avoid.

Hutchings and others stressed that no deals to transfer any water are in the works. At this point, the proposed arrangement would do no more than start laying the legal groundwork for a broad range of options for reallocation of water, if any of those options would be mutually advantageous to Bellingham and other water users. Any actual shift of water would need both public scrutiny and a public vote by elected officials, Hutchings added.

"We all recognize that the city (Bellingham) could be part of a regional solution," Hutchings said. "This is a baby step."

The Ferndale and Lynden withdrawal sites farther down the river could also supply Bellingham itself in the distant future, leaving more water in the upper stretches of the river where salmon spawn. That means that the potential new city withdrawal sites also could be part of a deal with the Lummi and Nooksack.

At the Aug. 12 City Council meeting, Mayor Kelli Linville and Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson assured council members that there is no actual water transfer deal in the works, and any such deal would need council and public scrutiny before it could be enacted.

"This really is the start of the planning process," Carlson said. "We're not assuming any outcomes at this point."

Linville said the same.

"We are not proposing anything right now to supply water to anybody else," Linville said.

Steve Jilk, PUD general manager, said the PUD's only role in the process is the granting of city use of a PUD-owned river water withdrawal site in Ferndale that has not been used since the mid-1970s.

"We didn't see any real advantage to the PUD," Jilk said. "But we just considered it as an opportunity to assist the city (Bellingham) in serving more of a regional service area."

Lynden Mayor Korthuis said his city's council will consider the deal when and if Bellingham approves. The proposed Lynden-Bellingham deal includes a provision that could transfer some Bellingham river water to Lynden as compensation for use of Lynden's intake, but Korthuis said that provision is not the main point of the exercise.

"Let's all work together for the global good of Whatcom County," Korthuis said. "We want to be a community player in helping a variety of needs."

READ THE REPORTS

Read the proposed memorandum of agreement between Bellingham and Lynden here.

Read the proposed deal between Bellingham and the PUD here.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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