By the end of this year, as many as four new agricultural districts might start raising money from farmers and consolidating power in order to have a stronger say in Whatcom County's complex and contentious water-supply discussions.
Organizers say the new irrigation, or watershed improvement, districts could help farmers find creative ways to provide a legitimate water supply to those who are now irrigating with more water than they have a right to, or who have no water right at all.
Members of the Ag District Coalition, which is working to form the districts, also say the new entities would give farmers a more prominent place at the table where water use would be negotiated.
"Largely, agriculture does not feel like they have much of a voice in a lot of issues in the county," coalition board co-chairman Randy Honcoop said in a presentation to the County Council in May. "(Water) is one where we hope we can get one."
The council on Tuesday, Aug. 5, accepted petitions from farmers to form four watershed improvement districts - Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden and Sumas. The council is likely to hold public hearings on the districts on Sept. 16.
Property owners with at least 41/2 acres within the proposed boundaries would cast votes in October to decide whether to form the districts and elect boards.
Each district would collect an assessment from member farmers, or non-farmer property owners, who have 41/2 or more acres. According to lists provided by the coalition, the money could be used to create water storage, marketplaces where water rights could be bought and sold, and so-called "pump and dump" systems that move groundwater into fish-bearing streams.
Two watershed districts already exist, Bertrand and North Lynden. During their watch, creative solutions so far have advanced little toward answers to farmers' water-supply problems.
In one notable advance, some farmers have switched to using groundwater instead of taking water directly from streams, and that has reduced the pressure on salmon habitat.
A lot of other ideas were unsuccessful, said Doug Allen, manager of the state Department of Ecology's Bellingham field office. Ecology regulates water use in the state.
The Bertrand district dug a well to feed Bertrand Creek, but the groundwater had too much iron, Allen said. Other attempts at boosting stream levels with groundwater also failed, he said. Storing winter rain in reservoirs for use in the growing season so far has been found to be impractical.
"For the most part, they all proved to be at the time not feasible because of the cost," Allen said.
Local American Indian tribes and the Bertrand district began negotiating in 2005 to set aside a certain amount of water for fish in Bertrand Creek while leaving water for farmers, but those talks broke down.
Tribes and local governments tried one more round of negotiations, this time on the upper Nooksack forks, but those talks were suspended in December 2010, Allen said.
The tribes have the most senior right to water from streams and the Nooksack River. The rights of farmers to use water could be curtailed if stream flows were found to be insufficient to support salmon.
In 2011, Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe asked the federal government to file a lawsuit to settle how much of an "instream flow right" they have.
The tribes' request created "renewed urgency" over water among farmers, as Whatcom Farm Friends Executive Director Henry Bierlink said in a column in the August 2013 issue of Whatcom Ag Monthly. In 2012, Farm Friends started developing a list of recommendations for responding to the perceived new challenges to farmers' water. Irrigation districts were on that list.
Lummi Nation has discouraged water-rights banks, transfers or other changes to the out-of-stream water rights held by farmers, until the Lummis' instream rights are determined. The Lummi Indian Business Council did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
"They have a pretty linear idea of how these things are going to be resolved," Bierlink said. "That is not our view of how things are going to get resolved. ... Our (solutions) will be done in concert with theirs."
Besides, Bierlink said, tribes have been willing to work with irrigation districts before.
"They would see us as more of an opportunity than a threat," he said.