Whatcom Council chair weighs farmers' power play on eve of vote

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on May 5, 2014 

If water is the Big Story (so far) of 2014 -- more specifically, how to clean it up, and how to share it --then one of the biggest side stories is the effort by farmers to consolidate their political power by forming watershed improvement districts, or irrigation districts.

Farming in Whatcom, an industry that made $357 million at the market in 2012, has a lot to lose in a legal battle brewing between local tribes and the state of Washington, via the federal government. Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe separately in 2011 asked the federal government to file a lawsuit that would answer once and for all how much water the state through its rules must keep in Whatcom's salmon streams so the fish can be viable for the tribes' sustenance, commercial and ceremonial needs.

It's well established that some Whatcom farmers irrigate their crops without sufficient water rights. As berry farmer Marty Maberry put it at an April 19 water forum hosted by the Rome Grange, there is "under-permitted" and "non-permitted" water use among farmers. (He doesn't like the word "illegal" in this context.)

At a meeting in Lynden in January, farmers kicked off a campaign to create five new watershed improvement districts, in addition to the two already in existence. The formation of new irrigation districts would be voted on by landowners within the district boundaries, per RCW 87.03, perhaps in October, said Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends, at the March 15 League of Women Voters water forum.

Then the seven or so irrigation districts would unify as a joint board to represent farmers in this water-rights conflict -- this according to both Bierlink in March and Maberry in April.

As Whatcom County Council Chairman Carl Weimer explained in a blog post on Sunday, May 4, the council will consider a resolution on Tuesday that amounts to a symbolic "thumbs-up" to the farmers' effort to create irrigation districts. While Weimer doesn't reject the resolution in his blog, he does raise questions about the motivations of farmers and the power they might wield under this new organization.

Weimer seeks comments at the end of his post. I strongly suspect he would have your comments in mind when it comes time Tuesday evening to vote on the resolution.

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