Whatcom County water supply, quality problems demand attention

A field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road is watered June 5, 2015. Irrigation accounts for almost two-thirds of Whatcom County water use in July, August and September.
A field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road is watered June 5, 2015. Irrigation accounts for almost two-thirds of Whatcom County water use in July, August and September. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County seems like an unlikely place for a drought. Bellingham gets almost 40 inches of rain a year. Glacier, close to Mt. Baker, gets about 100 inches. (By comparison, Phoenix, Arizona, gets only 8 inches.) But very little snow this winter led the governor to declare a drought emergency.

The water supply and quality problems we face are long-term and enduring, not just a temporary hiccup. Although our problems are not nearly as dire as those in California, they are serious and need prompt and ongoing attention.

We get lots of rain and snow in the winter, but our water use (especially for irrigation) peaks in the summer, leading to inadequate summer flows in streams and rivers. Salmon and steelhead trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because the Nooksack River and its tributaries have too little water each summer. Fish are also harmed by water-quality problems, including low dissolved-oxygen levels and high temperatures, and by habitat loss. Fecal coliform bacteria from failing septic tanks, livestock, and wild animals pollute some streams and bays; fertilizers and pesticides harm other water bodies. Lake Whatcom, our largest freshwater body and the drinking-water source for half the county’s population, is polluted with excess phosphorous. The Department of Ecology estimated that we must reduce the footprint of human development in the watershed by almost 90 percent to restore water quality.

Here are the key features of the Whatcom water situation:

▪ Agriculture dominates water use, especially during the critical summer months. Irrigation accounts for almost two-thirds of our water use in July, August and September. By comparison, households and industry each account for less than one-sixth of summer use.

▪ The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe claim water under their 1855 treaty rights but these amounts are not yet specified. They are entitled to water for use on their reservations and instream flows sufficient to maintain a “harvestable surplus of salmon.” However, summer flows in the Nooksack River fail to meet the Department of Ecology’s minimum flows about two-thirds of the time. Because the tribes’ water rights are the most senior (from “time immemorial”), holders of junior water rights may have to limit their future water use.

▪ Much of the water is used in Whatcom County violates state law. In some cases, the discrepancy between a user’s permit and actual use is minor, but in other cases the water is used without any permit at all. This problem is especially serious for agriculture and also affects Lynden, which lacks water rights to support its growing population, and many small water associations.

▪ The county lacks markets and price signals that could help solve problems by encouraging greater water-use efficiency, allocating water to sectors that value it highly, and stimulating new supply projects.

▪ Water is presently so inexpensive that projects to increase supply and improve efficiency of use are considered too expensive. Nobody pays for water. Instead, we pay for the pumps, pipes, treatment plants, electricity and supplies to treat and deliver water, but not for the water itself. As a consequence, water is really, really cheap — especially compared to its value. Residential customers pay about 3 cents a gallon for water, and the large industries at Cherry Point pay about 0.14 cent per gallon. Farmers and rural households pay only their own costs to pump water. By comparison, milk and gasoline are $3 to $4 a gallon.

▪ State laws and regulations are largely unsuited to resolving these problems. Some of these laws are a century old and do not reflect the dramatic increases in Washington population, agriculture and industry. Nor do they reflect our growing understanding of local water issues, in particular, the interactions between groundwater and surface water flows.

▪ The county’s land-use planning and water-resource management policies are poorly integrated. As the County Council noted in 2011, “Land use decisions are made assuming sufficient water resources will be available to serve these land uses (residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural). In Whatcom County, water supply is not sufficient to meet all competing needs whether it is because of water rights, water quality or water quantity.” The situation is especially serious for agriculture and for rural residential areas not served by a water utility.

▪ Our water problems will likely get worse because of population growth and climate change. The county’s population is expected to increase by almost 84,000 people over the next two decades. Climate change will likely mean less snow in the mountains, earlier snow melting, increased springtime flooding, and hotter, drier summers. And the effects of climate change elsewhere (think of California, Nevada and Arizona) will encourage even more migration to the Pacific Northwest, furthering increasing pressure on limited water supplies.

▪ Our water problems are complicated and longstanding. Therefore, the solutions will be complicated, long-term and controversial. They may require greater enforcement of existing regulations and development of new regulations on land use, water consumption and water pollution. They will also require public education, voluntary actions and demonstrations of various systems that help solve these problems.

▪ Much of the water used in Whatcom County is not metered, recorded or reported for the public. The agricultural sector is the key source of this data gap, although rural residential households also fall into this category. Without reliable data on actual water consumption, it will be challenging to design and implement methods to resolve water-supply problems; for example, we will not know if more efficient irrigation systems work as intended unless we have pre- and post-installation data on actual (not estimated!) water use.


This is the first of a series of columns about the water problems and potential solutions in Whatcom County.

Eric Hirst holds a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University and worked for 30 years as an energy policy analyst at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since moving to Bellingham more than 12 years ago, he has served on three advisory committees for the city of Bellingham, was involved with the formation and early operation of the Whatcom County chapter of Futurewise and served on the board of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities.

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