Whatcom farmers face resistance on formation of taxing districts

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 7, 2014 

Randy Honcoop

Pedro Garcia ties up raspberry canes on Randy Honcoop's farm north of Lynden on June 13, 2008. Honcoop and other farmers are seeking a Whatcom County Council resolution in support of irrigation districts that could provide more water to farmers.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Farmers in Whatcom County won't get the County Council's blessing yet on a plan to create new government bodies with the authority to tax farms and speak more forcefully for agriculture in the county's simmering water-rights dispute.

A group of farmers organized as the Ag District Coalition plan to hold elections this fall to create five watershed improvement districts, also known as irrigation districts. The districts would levy a tax based on the number of acres a farm has. The money would be used on projects that would provide more water to farmers, and to pay for legal fights over water, coalition officials said.

Farmers have a lot to lose in the water dispute. Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe have asked the federal government to file a lawsuit that would decide how much water should be left in streams to benefit salmon. When this happens - and tribal officials insist it needs to happen - farmers expect some of them will get their water turned off, unless more water is made available somehow. Some farmers already irrigate their fields without enough water rights.

Irrigation district funds could go toward water storage, adding groundwater to streams and other projects that could generate a greater supply of water for agriculture, according to a list provided by the coalition.

"Many of these projects will be quite costly for the (districts) to finance on landowner assessments alone," said Randy Honcoop, co-chairman of the coalition. The districts likely would seek grant money, he said.

Some other groups are suspicious of the farmers' plan to consolidate their power.

Karen Brown, who represents rural well owners in a broad-based committee working on water issues called the "planning unit," said farmers at an organizational meeting in January were dismissive of well users.

"The implication is that these property owners would have no say, not enough land and money to sit at the table," Brown wrote Tuesday, May 6, in an email to the council.

Confronted with these concerns and a request from Brown to not rush into support of the irrigation districts, the council decided to put off a vote on a resolution that would have been a seal of approval for the farmers' plans. The coalition also wanted council to wait until other groups' questions were answered, Honcoop said.

"There is not, nor has there ever been, a local conflict between the interests of (farmers and well users)," a Tuesday, May 6, email from Honcoop to the council said. "We hear of 'concerns,' but we don't know what they are, and believe that we should have an opportunity to address the questions before the county decides to reject the proposed resolution."

Coalition members don't need a council resolution to achieve their goal of creating districts that would give them more authority among the decision-makers in the water dispute. But the resolution, while only symbolic, is still meaningful to the coalition.

"To say no to it ... sends a pretty negative message to us, to our group, to the rest of the farmers and to your staff," which needs to work with the farmers on the irrigation districts, said Henry Bierlink, a farmer working with the coalition.

Council voted to table the resolution until an unspecified date.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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