There are many pieces to the puzzle of water availability in Whatcom County. A bill sponsored in the Senate by Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, would help with one part of one piece -- and that bill passed the Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 5.
OK, it's a negligible part. The bill would get the state Department of Ecology to recognize already-existing water practices by raspberry farmers in Whatcom County. This may not bring any closer to resolution the broader countywide issue of how to divvy up the water to rural homes, farms, industries and cities -- while leaving enough behind for fish. But it does tidy up a part of what is unsettled about farmers' water rights in the county.
Bill 5199 passed 38 to 8, with our other local senator, Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, also voting "yes." Raspberry farmers have been irrigating more acres for years after converting from overhead sprinklers to more efficient drip systems. Because the new systems use less water, farmers have been able to expand their allotted water into more fields. This change must be noted on farmers' water-right permits, and Ecology never processed those changes after farmers applied for them.
"The Department of Ecology was not processing water rights applications at that time," Ericksen said. "They kind of got lost in the shuffle."
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One of the compromises added to the bill's language was to narrow its scope so that it only applied to Whatcom County. According to the bill language, it would take effect only in county's with more than 6,000 acres in raspberry production.
The bill has a good chance to pass the House, Ericksen said.
"I think the prospects are excellent. I think people recognize it’s a good government bill and a good natural resources bill," he said.
The senator distanced this bill from the thornier and broader water-rights issues in the county.
"I think those are two separate issues. This piece of legislation isn't going to impact the larger water rights issues going on the county," Ericksen said.
No, it only takes a step closer to determining what water farmers are using within their rights, and what water use is beyond their rights. Sorting all of that out would be a significant step toward solving Whatcom's water puzzle.