BELLINGHAM - Mayor Kelli Linville and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws fielded questions about some of the most challenging issues they face - low-paying jobs, coal and oil trains, and water rights - in front of a packed Bellingham City Club audience Wednesday, Jan. 22.
Louws said he has yet to get his mind around a complex legal dispute that could prevent rural landowners from drilling new wells on their properties.
"Water is extremely complicated, and the truth is I have not been able to identify what the logical outcome is as it relates to the pressures rural property owners are having," Louws said.
A 2013 order by the Growth Management Hearings Board would require Whatcom property owners to prove new wells would not affect the levels of certain streams that feed into the Nooksack River. The county is appealing.
"People who have invested in the raw property and have made their living doing that are concerned, and we need to find a resolution to it," Louws said.
Bellingham could be a key part of the solution to the water-rights problem, Linville said.
The city has more than enough rights to water for its own use, and the city could lease some of its rights to farmers, to keep agriculture viable in the county, she said.
Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe are major players in the water dispute. Federal courts tend to look favorably on tribal claims for natural resources protections, including requests to maintain a specific amount of water in streams for salmon. Linville said a strategy based on seeking a resolution outside of court won't work.
"They always have the opportunity to go to court and have their rights quantified, and our tribes have asked for that," Linville said. "Avoiding court is not going to be the answer."
The threat of coal trains headed for a proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point has been eclipsed, for now, by the more immediate danger posed by oil trains. Recent news reports of oil-train derailments included one in a city in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people.
Louws and Linville said they have spoken to U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, who represents Whatcom County outside Bellingham, to push the federal government to enact tighter safety regulations for oil-carrying trains.
The mayor and executive were asked if governments can improve Whatcom's wages, which are lower than the median incomes in the state and the U.S.
The city will preserve light-industrial zoning and maintain the area's quality of life, "so we can attract the types of jobs that pay better than retail sales," Linville said.
Louws said the county needs to improve its reputation for being unfriendly to new business. Other than that, governments should provide good roads and utilities, law enforcement and education.
"Private industry can take care of the rest of it for us," he said.