Most Whatcom farmers should weather drought

Watering a field near Lynden, Friday, June 5, 2015.
Watering a field near Lynden, Friday, June 5, 2015. The Bellingham Herald

The Nooksack River basin, which includes most of Whatcom County, is vulnerable to water shortages due to this year’s warm, dry growing season. But state officials and a spokesman for local farmers say the drought has not yet posed a problem for agriculture in the county.

“There’s a lot of water in most cases,” said Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends and the Washington Red Raspberry Commission. “It’s not like anybody’s in panic mode, but I think some people have a concern about their wells.”

Officials in Skagit County have already taken emergency action to get water to farmers.

The Skagit Public Utility District gave up some of its water right so two irrigation districts could pump water from the Skagit River to 5,000 acres of farmland on June 16-17. The two districts normally are able to draw rainwater from ditches through June, but by the second week of June the ditches were almost empty, according to the Department of Ecology.

Low snow levels in the mountains over the winter, combined with little rain over the past three months, have made it difficult for farmers who draw water from rivers, streams and ditches. Most farmers in Whatcom County are in a more favorable position because they use wells.

“Well under 20 percent of our water comes from the surface, and we are moving a lot of that off for the sake of trying to preserve stream flows for salmon,” Bierlink said. “There is less and less reliance on surface water.”

Data for the 2015 water year, which began on Oct. 1, 2014, indicate that aquifers were full going into this season. April, May and June were exceedingly dry, with Bellingham International Airport recording just 32 percent of normal rainfall so far for those months. But the first six months of the water year, October through March, were 12 percent above normal for precipitation.

The first farmers likely to face irrigation problems this summer are some of those who draw from surface streams, and those with low-quality wells, Bierlink said.

As of Thursday, June 25, no one from Whatcom County had applied to the state for emergency drought relief, according to Ecology officials. That relief might allow farmers to drill a new well or to take water from a different surface source. Ecology also can transfer water rights in an emergency from an agency or individual who has more water than they need.

Farmers with water rights dating after 1985 already are required to stop irrigating, said Doug Allen, manager of Ecology’s Bellingham field office. That was the year the state made a rule giving a water right to the Nooksack River and certain tributaries, to keep enough water in the streams for salmon.

But nearly all of the water rights in Whatcom County cannot be shut off for the benefit of stream flows because those rights predate the 1985 rule, said Ecology spokeswoman Krista Kenner.

Conditions for irrigation later this summer will depend on how much rain the county receives in the next several weeks.

“Nobody has a full handle on that,” Bierlink said. “The water table is lower in June than we’ve ever seen it. ... We normally get to this point in August.”

Ecology officials look at the gauge on the Nooksack River and come to the same conclusion: Looking at the river, you would think it was August.

The river flow at Ferndale was 38 percent of average on Friday, June 26, and was the lowest ever measured on that date since consistent records were first kept in 1966.

“The flow levels we’re seeing in the river now in June are typically not seen until August, and even then in a bad year,” Allen said. “It’s unprecedented really, and it’s difficult to know what will happen.”

While some Whatcom farmers could have a water emergency this summer, it’s not likely the problem will carry over to next year, Bierlink and Ecology officials said.

“Up here we typically see full recharge .... close to the surface of the ground ever year,” Allen said. “There’s that much rain.”

“For there to be any kind of cumulative effect, where we see continuously declining groundwater levels, we’d have to see continuous drought several years in a row,” Allen said. “We’d be in a whole other world if that were to happen.”

Bierlink said he expected to have too much of a good thing again this November or December.

“We know by the end of the year we’ll be trying to drain water like crazy again,” he said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.