Water districts want 'planning unit' in charge of Whatcom water policy

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 8, 2014 

Since 1998, Whatcom County has operated under the Watershed Planning Act. This statute allows local areas to evaluate their own water situations and set goals and objectives for water management through local watershed plans. A critical consideration of Watershed Planning Act was to place planning "...in the hands of people: Who have the greatest knowledge of both the resources and the aspirations of those who live and work in the watershed; and who have the greatest stake in the proper, long-term management of the resources," according to the Revised Code of Washington, section 90.82.010.

The Watershed Planning Act designated a body called the "Planning Unit" to direct local watershed planning, an effort comprising water quantity, water quality, habitat and instream flows. The planning unit was designed to represent the public interest through an open and inclusive process. Certain large players - such as Bellingham and the Public Utility District - were given direct membership in the planning unit, while others were seated as caucuses (i.e., one seat to represent a number of similar organizations). The water districts caucus, for example, consists of 10 local governments under policy direction of elected commissioners. Our boundaries include over 18,000 registered voters and one-sixth of the assessed valuation of the county's taxable property. We are the only entities responsible for potable water and wastewater services to properties within our service areas, and see effective water supply planning as an essential part of our duty to serve.

As the planning unit was being formed, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack tribe declined an invitation to join. Instead, they entered an interlocal agreement with the county, Bellingham and the PUD to form the joint administrative board. The board was to carry out administrative duties in furtherance of the Watershed Planning Act, subject to policy direction of the respective councils of the parties, while coordinating with the planning unit. This arrangement allowed ongoing engagement of the tribes, while maintaining communication with the broader interests at the planning unit. To further this effort, $5.6 million in county monies were transferred to the joint administrative board between 2000 and 2004. In 2005, the planning unit approved and the County Council adopted the Watershed Management Plan, which called for continuation of the planning unit to approve plan updates and instream-flow recommendations. The latter, it was hoped, would emerge from confidential negotiations involving the tribes, PUD, Bellingham and others.

By mid-2009, these negotiations had reached impasse. Instead of convening the planning unit to consider alternate approaches, joint administrative board staff stopped holding meetings of the planning unit altogether, effectively usurping planning unit authority and depriving water districts and other legitimately interested parties of their rightful place at the table and the opportunity to contribute vital local perspective. At the same time, the joint administrative board began to pass its own budget, using funds remaining from earlier county appropriations, without approval of the County Council - effectively functioning as a separate agency of government, but lacking the authority to do so. These actions were taken without notice to planning unit members, resulting in protest from the large number of stakeholders left out of the process. Last year, the council began to speak to these issues through Resolution 2013-025, which called for reinstatement of the planning unit as county policy and requested that the planning unit add certain advisory functions to its statutory planning duties. Planning unit meetings finally resumed on Sept. 25, 2013, after a break exceeding four years. Despite uncertain funding and other difficulties arising from this needless and lengthy interruption, we have developed a draft work plan and begun addressing ways to streamline decision-making. The tribes' request for a federal court adjudication of their treaty-reserved water rights, filed in 2011, emphasizes the pressing need to restore constructive dialogue between the planning unit and the joint administrative board. To accomplish this objective, the water districts caucus believes the joint administrative board should return to its original concept as a strictly administrative entity under policy direction of the parties' respective councils, thereby providing a means to execute important work while maintaining communication between the tribes and the planning unit. At this point, any attempt to preserve the joint administrative board as an independent enclave of self-selected planning elites should be understood as the road to further discord.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Baker is an elected commissioner of Glacier Water District and participates in Whatcom Water Districts Caucus, Water Resource Inventory Area 1 Planning Unit.

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