Talks in a legal dispute between Whatcom County and environmentalists who claim the county isn't protecting water for fish and other needs took a step forward last month, when the state Department of Ecology agreed to come to the negotiating table.
Settlement talks that began in January will resume May 27. Conservatives are suspicious of the county's decision to let the environmentalists speak directly to Ecology.
The state agency's participation was requested by the petitioners against the county: Futurewise and four citizens - Laura Leigh Brakke, Wendy Harris, Eric Hirst and David Stalheim.
Kris Halterman, an organizer for the political action committee Save Whatcom and a conservative talk radio host on KGMI-AM, said she understood why the county was pursuing a settlement, but she didn't trust the process.
"With Futurewise trying to draw the Department of Ecology into it ... that's a behind-closed-doors process," Halterman said. "I'm not comfortable because it's too important to the local property owners."
The state Growth Management Hearings Board sided with the petitioners in June 2013, ruling that the county isn't doing enough to protect flow levels in salmon streams, in part because it had allowed rural wells to proliferate unchecked. The overall case is much more wide-ranging than that and includes challenges to the county's efforts to reduce water pollution. The aspect of the case that has generated the most political heat is the conflict between rural well users and salmon.
The county appealed the decision to a state Court of Appeals. The board ruling created uncertainty about who should be applying rules protecting instream flows - the state or the county, council Chairman Carl Weimer said.
Council member Sam Crawford, a conservative, said having the environmental groups meet with the state could set the stage for "a convenient political push on Ecology to get them to ... be more restrictive or shut down all the well use in Whatcom County," Crawford said.
While new private wells have been partially restricted in other counties, no existing domestic wells in the state have been forced to shut down to preserve water availability elsewhere.
Tim Trohimovich, Futurewise director of planning and law, said Ecology actually helped protect rural wells in another county.
"In our Kittitas County surface and ground water settlement, Ecology was very helpful in coming up with an agreement that protects residential exempt-well uses from being curtailed during low water years," Trohimovich said.
Doug Allen, manager of Ecology's Bellingham field office, said the state would not be talked into a stricter enforcement role during negotiations.
"These are negotiations to help these two parties identify some solutions and some way to resolve their differences," Allen said. "We are here to help them be informed in their decisions.
"As far as the concerns from anyone that the negotiations will result in some kind of change in our policy, we have no intention of doing anything like that at this point."