Council member's proposal would set priorities for Whatcom's long list of water issues

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 9, 2014 

When government officials confront all of Whatcom County's water issues - shellfish contamination, phosphorus in Lake Whatcom, water rights disputes and salmon habitat, to name a few - it's hard to know where to start. A to-do list with more than 300 items that the County Council made before the recession lost its funding after the downturn and was put on hold.

Council Chairman Carl Weimer wants to re-create the priority list in the form of a water action plan, which is coming before the council for approval Tuesday, March 11.

A host of players in the county have lined up to stake their claim on available water. Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe have asked the federal government to file a lawsuit to determine how much Nooksack River water they are entitled to. In response, farmers are organizing to form watershed improvement districts, in order to consolidate and enhance their power in what is setting up to be a confrontation over water rights.

Meanwhile, rural property owners are on edge after a 2013 state Growth Management Hearings Board decision that might prevent them from drilling new water wells. The County Council has appealed that ruling.

The county is in a fairly unique position to coordinate a solution among the various parties, Weimer said.

"We don't have a water right we can share with anybody," he said. "We can't solve the problem. But we don't have a vested interest either, so we might be the best facilitators of that discussion."

As prominent as the water-rights issues are, they wouldn't necessarily be No. 1 on a county priority list. The county soon will be under a state-imposed deadline to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Whatcom, the drinking-water supply to more than 95,000 county residents. The clock will begin ticking after the Department of Ecology releases its final report on the lake's pollution problems, probably within the next six months.

Council member Sam Crawford, who has argued that developers or home builders shouldn't bear the brunt of the Lake Whatcom phosphorus restrictions, is withholding judgment for now on the water action plan, except to say that he likes the idea in principle.

"I don't see that we've got any choice but to respond to Ecology and work on a plan," Crawford said.

In his view, work on Lake Whatcom's phosphorus problem would include an investigation of sources other than developed lots. Crawford has said Bellingham's diversion system, which brings water to the lake from the middle fork of the Nooksack River, is a major source of phosphorus.

The council will discuss Weimer's water action plan in a committee meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. A resolution signaling the council's intent to adopt the plan comes to a vote of the full council at its 7 p.m. Tuesday meeting. Both meetings will be at the County Courthouse, 311 Grand Ave.

The resolution asks for input from the public by Aug. 1 so the council could have its priority list ready when the county's 2015-16 budget is written in the fall.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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