Whatcom farmers’ proposal to secure water stalls

An effort by farmers to consolidate power and get all the water they need was put on hold after the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Sept. 16, decided to postpone its approval of four irrigation districts.

After holding separate public hearings on each of the four districts, the council voted 4-3 to bring them back for a vote on Sept. 30.

Originally, ballots were to be mailed to farmers on Oct. 3, so they could make the ultimate decision on whether to form the districts. That election has been postponed indefinitely, council Clerk Dana Brown-Davis said.

The agencies are called “irrigation districts” in state law, but local organizers use the term “watershed improvement districts.” None of the four north Whatcom districts — Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden or Sumas — possess water rights. Nor would they build districtwide irrigation systems for farmers to tap into, as was envisioned when lawmakers passed the Basic Irrigation Act of 1889-90.

Rather, the districts would find creative ways to enable farmers who have no water rights, or insufficient rights, to use all the water they need legitimately. Such mechanisms could include transferring water rights; creating water banks, where farmers could purchase rights; or finding ways to grant new rights while at the same time adding to stream flows to preserve salmon habitat.

These sophisticated proposals would need an organized body with the clout and the funds required to pull them off, district proponents said.

“We’re going to be a lot stronger if we do this together, rather than everybody trying to do this on their own,” said Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends.

A delay of two weeks in the farmers’ ballot could cause organizers to miss a deadline at the county treasurer’s office, which might prevent the districts from collecting assessments from property owners until 2016, Bierlink said. He said this would be “a missed opportunity for farmers and the community to dig into developing solutions for our water challenges.”

The Department of Ecology, which assigns and enforces water rights, has been tolerant of the illicit irrigation in the county, but farmers expect to be held to account in the coming years. Tribes have asked the federal government for a ruling on how much water must be left in streams for fish. Farmers, industries, cities and rural well users will be able to use only whatever water remains.

All seven council members showed support for the districts, but a majority voted to delay the vote at the prompting of council member Barbara Brenner. She wanted the council and the public to have more time to review a letter from Ecology confirming all four districts had enough water rights for their purposes — which is to say, none.

Voting against the delay were Carl Weimer, Ken Mann and Sam Crawford.

“I was excited to see agriculture coming together to organize this,” Weimer said. “Ag in many ways is kind of the low man on the ladder when it comes to water availability and rights, and they really need to draw together and find a way to creatively engage in this process and potentially move water around.”