Public asked to comment on Whatcom farmers’ plan to secure more water

Farmers would like a stronger voice in the discussions about who gets the limited amount of water available in Whatcom County.

First, the public gets its say in a proposal from a group called the Ag District Coalition to create four watershed improvement, or irrigation, districts, intended to give farmers more political clout and a funding source for securing more water for irrigation.

The County Council will hold public hearings after 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 16, on each of four irrigation districts that would be formed: Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden and Sumas. The hearings will take place at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.

Council members have questioned the voting system within the districts — not “one person, one vote,” but rather two votes for every five acres owned. Some people have wondered if property owners on less acreage would be fairly represented by a district leadership whose purpose is to look out for larger-scale farmers.

Karen Brown, who represents private well owners on the “planning unit” for the Nooksack River basin, said owners of smaller properties served by wells, and hobby farmers, aren’t getting respect from the organizers of watershed improvement districts, or WIDs.

“The implication is that these property owners would have no say, not enough land and money to sit at the table,” Brown wrote in a May 6 email to the council. “There needs to be an equal seat at the WIDs’ table for these people.”

In an interview Friday, Sept. 12, Brown said her concerns had not been addressed since she wrote the email.

“There has been no feedback from the people in the WIDs to the well owners,” she said.

Farmers are in a particular bind because some are irrigating their fields with inadequate water rights.

The Department of Ecology, which enforces water rights, has been looking the other way, but all water users may be called to account in the foreseeable future. Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe have asked the federal government to rule on how much water should be set aside for stream flows, for the benefit of salmon. Farmers and all other water users would get in line behind this in-stream allotment.

The districts would be “a voice that can speak with credibility for agriculture,” said Ag District Coalition co-chairman Ed Blok in May, “where agricultural landowners are actually, in a grassroots way, generating the projects and the actions and the responses that need to be taken on, out in the county.”

Not only would the districts have bargaining power; they would have funding. The districts would collect an assessment from property owners within their boundaries, to fund projects intended to secure more water for farmers. These could include the creation of water-rights “banks” where farmers could purchase the water rights they need, or projects for storing winter rains specifically for irrigation in the dry summer months. District board members would decide how much per acre to assess from each property owner.

Districts would not have the authority to take away a farmer’s water right or transfer a right from one farmer to another, according to the petitions submitted to the council in July to form the districts.

Property owners within the districts are being asked to vote next month on whether to create the districts, and who should sit on the boards.