Lynden water supply trumps fix for asbestos in budget battle

View of Swift Creek, looking east from Oat Coles Road bridge, in April 2014. The creek is filled with sediment. The berms on either side of the creek are made from dredged sediment.
View of Swift Creek, looking east from Oat Coles Road bridge, in April 2014. The creek is filled with sediment. The berms on either side of the creek are made from dredged sediment. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In the political and fiscal calculations made in the closing days of the 2015 state Legislature, something had to give.

Lynden doesn’t have the rights to provide enough water to its residents and businesses. Elsewhere in north Whatcom County, farmers and residents from Nooksack to Canada have a very different problem: A landslide full of asbestos and soil-damaging metals threatens to contaminate farmland and harm human health.

The Republican-led Senate, including Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, added $2 million in the 11th hour to boost Lynden’s water allowance. Meanwhile, the Senate pulled $3.8 million that had been in the state budget since December to start protecting communities downstream of the Swift Creek landslide.

Ericksen’s district includes both Lynden and Swift Creek.

A county official overseeing the Swift Creek problem said he had received assurances from Ericksen that money to dig basins and build traps to capture the sediment would be in the state’s 2015-17 construction budget, called the capital budget.

“I personally was given a commitment by him that he understood (the problem),” county special projects manager Roland Middleton told members of the County Council at a July 28 meeting. “It is a problem for the people who live in the area. It’s damaging the agricultural uses in the area, and we need to address it.”

“I thought for sure Sen. Ericksen was going to vote for it and did not,” Middleton said.

An environmental review of the county’s Swift Creek action plan noted that floods carrying Swift Creek sediment have contaminated farmland with heavy metals. Farmers have needed to mix healthy soil into their fields to restore soil fertility after floods, the report said.

The asbestos, a natural part of the rock coming from the slide, is potentially harmful to humans, but studies of the health risk associated with the Swift Creek slide were inconclusive. The microscopic asbestos fibers can cause lung diseases if inhaled.

The Whatcom Conservation District warned farmers this summer that the drought has resulted in more exposed asbestos-laden sediment that could be getting into irrigation water and fields.

Geologist and former County Council member Dan McShane criticized Ericksen on his blog, “Reading the Washington Landscape.” McShane wrote on Aug. 8 that Ericksen “intentionally failed his constituents” by not backing the Swift Creek cleanup.

Ericksen dismissed criticism along the lines of McShane’s as an attack from the political left. McShane had donated to the campaign of Ericksen’s Democratic opponent in the 2014 elections.

The senator says he supports fixing Swift Creek.

“Swift Creek is a very important issue that needs to be addressed,” Ericksen said Aug. 21 in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “We will continue to work on this in the coming years.”

“Contrary to what some are saying, I do not have unilateral power to add or remove projects from the capital budget,” Ericksen said in a separate email on Aug. 20.

“This year we were forced to move funds to a new water pipe in Lynden due to blockage of legislation to address a specific issue there,” Ericksen said.

Ericksen had sponsored a bill that would have allowed water discharged into the Nooksack River from Lynden’s Darigold plant to be credited toward Lynden’s water allotment, even though the Darigold water enters the river at the wastewater treatment plant, about 3,000 feet downstream of Lynden’s water intake.

State law restricts additional water allowances coming from downstream because that leaves a deficit of water along the stretch of the river between the intake and the discharge.

Lummi Nation, which relies on salmon fishing for its economy and culture, opposed Ericksen’s bill. This missing water can make it that much harder for salmon to survive, tribal officials said, especially in drought years when the river is already low.

When it appeared certain the Lynden bill wouldn’t pass, lawmakers pivoted and added the $2 million for a new pipe to the capital budget. The pipe will bring the Darigold water to roughly the same point on the river where Lynden takes water, on the Nooksack at Hannegan Road.

The pipe will help keep Lynden in compliance with its water-right permits by adding up to 400 acre-feet to the city’s allotment of 1,792 acre-feet. An acre foot is a measure of volume, one foot high and an acre in area.

Lynden’s water right is enough to fill 885 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Darigold water would add up to 200 more Olympic-sized pools.

“That pipe is very important to the city,” Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis said. The city and the state Department of Ecology, which enforces water rights, have an agreement that says the state will not take action against Lynden as long as the city is looking for ways to access more water. Lynden has exceeded its water right multiple times.

“With that roughly 400 acre-feet,” Korthuis said, “we would be working within our annual water right.”

The pipe still needs to be designed, permitted and then built — a process that could extend beyond 2017, Lynden Public Works Director Steve Banham said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.