Politics Blog

Whatcom council hears outline of Lummi water-rights deal

Details have emerged in the latest proposal by Lummi Nation to settle the county’s water-rights dispute.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws gave an outline of the proposal to the County Council at a council committee meeting at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, July 21. The outline came out of a meeting on Friday, July 17, that the tribe had called with officials from the county, Bellingham, Lynden, the Public Utility District of Whatcom County and the state Department of Ecology.

Louws listed the elements of the settlement proposal as presented Friday by Lummi water resources manager Jeremy Freimund:

(1) The tribe would like to see a joint settlement agreement ready for judicial review and approval in 2 years.

(2) The proposal contemplates a drainage-by-drainage approach to establishing instream flows, water quality goals and habitat improvements.

(3) Separate instream flow targets would be established for reaches above the three forks confluence (of the Nooksack River) and below the forks.

(4) Existing state standards would be the basis for water quality improvements in all drainages.

(5) Habitat improvements like riparian plantings, setback levees and large woody debris installations would be prescribed for each drainage.

(6) Alternative water supply arrangements for out-of-stream water users in the tributaries would be established.

(7) An accountability mechanism would be advanced to create economic incentives for implementing provisions of a successful agreement.

The problem essentially is not enough water rights to go around. The Nooksack and some of its tributaries are under a state rule that sets minimum flow requirements for the benefit of fish and other wildlife. When the river and other streams are below that flow level, as they are this summer under unprecedented drought conditions, certain farms and other water-rights holders are not allowed to draw water. On top of that, some farms operate routinely with insufficient water rights or no water right at all.

A healthy salmon population is essential to Lummi Nation’s economy and culture, and courts have upheld an 1855 treaty according tribes the right to half the fish and shellfish available for harvest.

Louws’ brief account of the meeting with Lummi officials and local jurisdictions didn’t generate much council discussion. Council member Barbara Brenner did speak up on behalf of small water providers and rural property owners with wells.

“I appreciated who attended. What concerns me is who wasn’t there,” Brenner said. “I just want to make sure that other water districts, water associations and private well owners don’t get lost in this whole thing.”

“As it develops, we’ll do the best that we can to keep everyone involved,” Louws replied, noting that the parties at Friday’s meeting were invited by Lummi Nation.

“We are advocating on behalf of all landowners within Whatcom County,” Louws said. “We have an environmental stewardship that we need to maintain. A large part though, is this needs to be in my mind facilitated by Department of Ecology, as a lot of these goals in this proposed framework step outside of the bounds of current law.

“It’s going to take a lot of effort to be able bring this to fruition, if that’s what we choose to do.

“We’re looking at it as an opportunity, something that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort. At this particular time, we’re — just as the rest of the community is — staying tuned and being engaged as it develops.”