The Whatcom County Council this Tuesday morning, May 6, got a revealing description from farmer-leaders about how they're trying to create five watershed improvement districts. Their intent, farmers say, is to have a bigger "voice" in the complex water issues that have gotten so much public attention since the conclusion of the 2013 elections.
The agricultural community has a voice on the planning unit, a group of diverse interests that hasn't had a well-defined role in watershed planning ever since they helped complete the 2005 Nooksack watershed improvement plan.
Ag representatives have distanced themselves from the planning unit, saying the time for planning is over. By creating watershed improvement districts, farmers believe they can get in on the action.
A lot of that action -- and a lot of the money watershed improvement districts, or irrigation districts, would collect from farmers -- would be of the legal variety.
Farmers see themselves holding the short end of the stick when it comes to water rights, and water pollution problems. Some farmers irrigate without sufficient rights, and some groundwater pollution, such as the nitrate problem in the north county, is attributed to them.
The days might be numbered when the state Department of Ecology looks the other way while some farmers use unpermitted water. The Lummi and Nooksack tribes have asked the federal government to file a lawsuit to determine how much water should be left in streams for salmon. The amount of water left to everyone else will probably follow from that decision.
"That is probably one of the largest concerns that we had," Randy Honcoop told council members this morning. Honcoop, a farmer, is co-chairman of the Ag District Coalition, which seeks to form the watershed improvement districts. The other co-chairman is dairy farmer Ed Blok.
"That is a potential death-knell to what we do," Honcoop said.
Administrative and legal costs are probably the two largest expenses the improvement districts will have, Honcoop told the council.
The ag coalition asked the council to pass a resolution tonight supporting the improvement district effort. Some on the council said they weren't ready to vote on the resolution. Council members received concerned emails from rural well owners and other interests in the planning unit about the farmers acquiring a bigger profile in the water dispute.
The council Natural Resources Committee, which heard the coalition's presentation this morning, voted to move the resolution forward to the full council tonight without a recommendation.