BELLINGHAM - Ask a room full of politicians, farmers, environmentalists and citizens about the major issues with water supply and use in Whatcom County, and they will likely say there are about four major categories.
As outlined - in varying order - by speakers at a water forum hosted by the Rome Grange Saturday, April 19, at the downtown Bellingham Public Library, those issues include:
-- Water rights - legal allotments of how much water a person, group or business can use.
-- Instream flows - regulated stream flow that ensures a stream gets the amount it needs (in a sense, its own water right) for the resources that depend on it, like fish and wildlife (this issue comes into play with tribal treaty rights).
-- Solving water problems efficiently and effectively while minimizing harm to everyone involved.
The forum was the first in a series designed to make sense of Whatcom's water policies, how they need to change, and what role government should play.
State Rep. Vincent Buys moderated the forum, which included short speeches from Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer, Assistant Bellingham Public Works Director Jon Hutchings, berry farmer and member of the Agriculture Districts Coalition Marty Maberry, Public Utility District Manager Steve Jilk, and Doug Allen, manager of the Department of Ecology's Bellingham office.
Among the many things the County Council has to consider with regard to water issues is a list of 300 or so projects (estimated to cost in the hundreds of millions when all is said and done) that was created before the recession hit, Weimer said at the forum.
The Council voted in March to create a Water Action Plan to prioritize the water issues for its 2015 to 2016 budget discussions.
The county is also moving toward updating the Coordinated Water Supply Plan for the first time since 2000. The plan coordinates the acquisition, treatment and delivery of water to the public.
Many rural users are affected by and concerned about water rights. Rights granted earliest take highest priority, a policy known as "first in time, first in right." For agricultural purposes, water rights also follow a "use it or lose it" policy, which was intended to make water not used upstream accessible to those with junior rights. But that policy can also essentially punish farmers for switching to more efficient systems, Maberry said.
"We probably use half the water we used to per acre," Maberry said. "But 'use it or lose it' has made us lose our water rights for doing the right thing."
Incentivizing users to do the right thing, such as installing a stormwater system in exchange for a break on stormwater fees, is something the county is already pursuing, Weimer said.
The speakers agreed that understanding the county's groundwater systems - such as how much there is, and where it connects to other bodies of water - is key for future decision making.
"The simplest way to get to solutions is to pursue that understanding," Hutchings said. "That can help us predict what will happen if moving water from one place to another."
Another piece of the puzzle will be figuring out water quantities in the county, Jilk said.
The quantity question may be answered in part over the next few years as the federal government helps the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Tribe with a request filed in 2011 to litigate their instream flow rights - largely water rights for salmon - which would rank higher than any other water rights established in the county.
Lasting solutions with the various issues will likely need to be reached under consensus decision making, not just by simple majority, Department of Ecology's Allen stated.
"What it takes is finding solutions we can support," Allen said. "Not everybody is going to agree with everything."
During an open question period, citizen Wendy Harris wondered, with such a large to-do list, whether the proposed and current system of prioritizing projects is best, or whether each watershed should be studied and prioritized holistically.
Allen said he agreed that a holistic study would be the best approach, but would be difficult and add to the list of planning processes already underway.
Farmers are not willing to wait for another 20 years for that type of holistic study, Maberry said.
"We have issues with the state," he said. "We're all in favor of the grand plan, but we're not in the position to wait."
The next forum in the Rome Grange's series is tentatively scheduled for May 17. Future forums will likely include more voices from farmers, rural landowners, industries, and other groups. For more information contact Larry Helm at 360-961-9584.