Preliminary results from elections held last month show that farmers in the north county approved four watershed improvement districts, intended to help them secure irrigation water in the face of competing demands for water from tribes, industries and others.
The votes to form the four districts — Drayton, Laurel, South Lynden and Sumas — were overwhelmingly positive, ranging from 84 to 98 percent. The districts needed the support of two-thirds of the property owners, weighted by acreage. Only people owning property larger than 4 1/2 acres were allowed by state law to vote.
The Whatcom County Council met on Monday, Nov. 10, to review about 10 questionable ballots. None of the decisions the council made on Monday would affect the outcomes, County Council clerk Dana Brown-Davis said.
Council was scheduled to certify the final results at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12, in council chambers at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham.
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Farmers within the districts will pay for projects to provide water to farmers who currently are irrigating with no water rights or insufficient rights. 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 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.
District boundaries were drawn to exclude properties less than 4 1/2 acres in size, and properties that didn’t have the “open space” tax deduction. The boundaries also kept out many farmers who didn’t approve of the districts, said Henry Bierlink of Whatcom Farm Friends.
“We certainly did not want to lose the election, and we didn’t want to take people who weren’t in the heart of agriculture,” Bierlink said.
Some council members initially were frustrated because they didn’t have any say in whether forming the districts was a good idea.
Council member Rud Browne was not frustrated by the process, but he had said in a previous meeting that the council was not in a position to consider the merits of the districts. Browne said after the meeting on Monday that the council will be better able to communicate with the farmers now that they’ve organized the districts.
“Irrespective of the merits of the districts, I prefer to deal with organizations that have elected leaders” because they are more accountable for their decisions, Browne said.
Two watershed districts already exist, Bertrand and North Lynden. District organizers also sought support this year for a South Fork district but decided there weren’t enough “yes” votes in that community to proceed with an election, Bierlink has said.
Correction: A statement about Whatcom County Council member Rud Browne’s reaction to the council’s role in approving watershed improvement districts was changed on Nov. 11, 2014. The description was inaccurate.