Watershed improvement districts a new solution to old problem

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 17, 2014 

When Washington State's Legislature first convened after statehood in 1889, one of its first acts was to authorize the creation of irrigation districts. Why? Because the adequacy of water supply for agriculture was at the foundation of the state's economy and lifeblood of rural communities. Today, the water supply and water quality issues facing agriculture are even more complicated and challenging. And since 1889, the irrigation district statute has evolved so that these districts can address a variety of issues - including water quality, water supply, drainage and environmental restoration - through watershed improvement districts.

In Whatcom County, a coalition of agricultural landowners called the Whatcom Ag District Coalition have formed to propose creating a series of districts under the irrigation district statute to provide agricultural landowners with a structure to address water and other environmental issues now and into the future. Each district would be created in a distinct drainage area of the county so that local landowners will have direct control and input over their own, local district.

Whatcom County's agricultural landowners face significant environmental and natural resource challenges that require organization, funding and creativity. Whatcom's farmers will need to receive assistance and cooperation from agencies and natural resource partners to address these challenges. Regulatory agencies at all levels of government will increasingly scrutinize agricultural operations for water quality impacts on drinking water and shellfish, and to protect the health of rivers and Puget Sound. On water supply issues, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe have filed a request to quantify their water rights with the federal government. If this process goes forward, it could trigger a basin-wide determination of all other water rights as well. Under Washington's prior appropriation or "first-in-time is first-in-right" permitting system, irrigators who have junior water rights or who are determined to have no legal water rights at all could be left without water for irrigation or livestock. And, during some years, excess water supply during the fall/winter/spring can adversely affect water quality, habitat, floodplains and agricultural productivity.

Whatcom County's agricultural landowners have the opportunity to organize themselves so that they can implement on-the-ground solutions to these problems in a way that they can support and own. Watershed improvement districts are created through a petition-signing process that requires at least 50 landowners within a proposed district, or of the owners of at least 50 percent of the land. Both the Whatcom County Council and the Department of Ecology review the proposed creation of these districts, and the council holds a public hearing. If the signature petition requirements are met, the question of whether to create a district and who would be on the districts' board of directors is a vote put only to those landowners who would be included in the district's assessment.

For the proposed new districts in Whatcom County, only landowners with 4 1/2 or more acres of land would be included in the district. If approved, these landowners would pay an assessment that must be used only for actions that benefit the agricultural landowners within the district. Each district would have the authority to develop and implement those projects and activities that mattered most to their own landowners.

Around the state, irrigation districts have a strong history of using this landowner-controlled, landowner-funded process to support agriculture. In the early years, irrigation districts worked almost exclusively on water diversion and delivery systems. But in more recent years, irrigation districts in the Yakima Basin, Olympic Peninsula and elsewhere have addressed water quality issues like nitrate contamination, water supply and conservation projects, and a variety of environmental protection issues that are critical to the success of agriculture. In Whatcom County, two districts created a few years ago - the Bertrand and North Lynden watershed improvement districts - have already been at work addressing water supply and water quality issues for agriculture. These additional proposed watershed improvement districts would provide even broader coverage and representation for agriculture in Whatcom County.

These districts would not replace existing water resource and water quality planning processes underway in Whatcom County. Rather, the districts would provide a structure for agricultural interests to legally participate with other water resource stakeholders. And while a number of entities such as drainage district and water associations already exist, these entities are generally limited by state statute to deal with single purpose issues - whereas the watershed improvement districts have broader authority over a variety of issues.

Water supply, water quality and other environmental issues affecting agriculture are topics that can create lots of disagreement. But from looking around the state, one point cannot be argued: the complex environmental issues facing agriculture will not solve themselves. Agricultural landowners must have an organizational structure that they own and trust to represent their interests in developing practical solutions. Since statehood, districts that are created and funded by agricultural landowners, and that act solely for those landowners, provide the best opportunity for progress.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Bill Clarke is an attorney in Olympia. He represents the Whatcom Ag District Coalition. Previously, he was a member and chair of the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board, which hears appeals of water rights and quality cases. He is currently chair of the Association of Washington Business' water resource committee. Greg Ebe is a civil engineer and seed potato grower. He serves on the Ag District Coalition's board of directors.

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