North Whatcom farmers to vote on districts that would legitimize water use

Farmers in four proposed watershed improvement districts in north Whatcom County can proceed with a vote to create the districts, after the County Council on Tuesday, Sept. 30, approved the districts’ boundaries and names.

Farmers within the districts would pay for projects to provide water to farmers who currently are irrigating with no water rights, or insufficient rights.

Environmentalists critical of the districts called it a power grab intended to take more of the county’s limited available water. Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe have first rights to water, which they would keep in the Nooksack River and its streams for the benefit of salmon. When and if federal courts rule on how much “instream flow” the tribes are allotted, farmers, cities, rural residents and industries will have to divide up what’s left.

Some council members initially were frustrated with the limited role they played in the formation of the districts, which in state law are called irrigation districts. Most members became resigned to their role and decided not to probe too deeply into whether the districts should be formed.

“We have no role in deciding as to whether we think the (districts) are a good idea or not,” council member Rud Browne said. “Our role is very limited. It’s about accepting the petition (from farmers to form the district), poll book, the boundaries and the name — and that’s it.”

The council votes were 6 to 1 for all four districts, with Barbara Brenner voting “no” each time.

Brenner said “it feels bad” not to agree with the farmers who were organizing the districts. Still, she didn’t support this approach to protecting irrigation water.

“I think it’s unfortunate, the way this is happening. It is pitting farmers against farmers, and some farmers against other water users,” Brenner said.

Farmers in the four districts — Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden and Sumas — will receive ballots in the mail that must be returned to the council office by Oct. 27. The only property owners who will vote are those with 4 1/2 acres or more, and who have a reduced property tax for owning “open space.” Other properties have been carved out of the districts and won’t be charged the assessment.

For more information, contact the council office, 360-676-6690.