Opinion

Community Conversation: Whatcom County’s family farmers helping to address water issues

We applaud The Bellingham Herald for helping raise awareness of Whatcom County’s water issues and appreciate the opportunity to participate in this community discussion. The recent heat and dry weather brings more attention to this important issue, while highlighting the importance of the abundant water we normally enjoy.

Whatcom County is a wonderful place to live, but also an incredibly productive place for growing food. Our longstanding leadership in dairy production continues even though the number of dairy farmers has greatly decreased and we have fewer cows than before. In the past thirty years or so, we have also become one of the world’s greatest producers of berries, particularly raspberries and blueberries. Other crops such as seed potatoes also find this a perfect place to grow. Our normally mild temperatures, fertile soil and abundance of water contributes to making this a perfect place for growing the highest quality foods.

There are some voices in our community, and opponents of agriculture from outside our area, who wish to see an end to farming in Whatcom County. Some, including lawyers looking to sue, falsely accuse farmers of being major contributors to water quality problems. The anti-farming voices with their unjustified accusations are becoming increasingly strident in our community and state, which is why it is important for everyone to know the facts. Here’s a brief summary of some key facts about our farmers and water:

We have an abundant supply of water: Whatcom County sits on a huge aquifer which, in normal circumstances, can provide sufficient water for farming, for fish, for environmental protection and for growing communities. Farmers use mostly groundwater from this aquifer, and given our abundant average rainfall of 40 inches to 100 inches in our watershed, this aquifer is almost always fully recharged every year. This abundance is challenged in the unusual conditions we face today. While most farmers seem to have adequate supply, some farmers are struggling to protect their land and crops because of well depth, location or other source issues.

We share this aquifer with Canada: 53 percent of our underground aquifer is in the lower Fraser Valley across the border — an area of both intense agriculture and a rapidly growing urban population of approximately 1 million citizens between Langley and Abbotsford. Water does not respect the political boundaries we establish and any discussion of water quantity and quality needs to include the reality of this shared aquifer.

Water availability is mostly about laws and regulations: Farmers are concerned about securing access to sufficient water for the future not because of limited supply but because of outdated laws and regulations. Laws such as the “use it or lose it” law that applies only to farmers, serves as an economic disincentive to farmers to conserve and reduce water use. This law needs to be changed. We believe there is both sufficient water and available water rights to meet the in-stream flow required for fish and supplies needed for farming. Unfortunately, the current arrangement of legal water rights does not offer a secure future for farming and needs to addressed.

Farmland is essential to maintaining clean, plentiful water: While farmers use water during the summer for irrigation, the 100,000-plus acres of farmland provides a massive collection area and filter for our high levels of rain during the rest of the year. Those who seek to drive farmers out through lawsuits, taxes or higher regulatory costs need to consider what will happen to those 100,000 acres if farmers are forced out. If the meadows and crops are replaced by asphalt and concrete, we will lose this incredibly valuable collection and filtering system. It’s one reason our local government leaders have made it clear that preserving this existing farmland is a high priority.

Farmers are proactively and effectively addressing water concerns: There are many users of water and many contributors to water quality concerns, but no one is taking these issues more seriously than farmers. And no one is acting more proactively and positively than farmers. Already millions of dollars have been spent by farmers to reduce water use, increase stream flows, protect the environment and improve water quality. And they’re not done yet. The six Watershed Improvement Districts established by farmers provide the basis for cooperative planning, project development and engagement with other water users and claimants. Activities by these districts and individual farmers to decrease water use, increase efficiency and address water quality concerns provide strong evidence that farmers are not just concerned about growing food but also caring for the land and environment that everyone enjoys and farmers depend on.

Whatcom County is a wonderful place to live, raise a family, enjoy the environment and the great outdoors. One reason for this is because it is also a great place to raise great food. We strongly encourage those concerned about these issues to get the facts and become engaged in this important discussion. The Watershed Improvement Districts and their coordinating body, the Ag Water Board, have produced a website filled with facts about farming in Whatcom County which can be found at agwaterboard.com. We believe the vast majority of members of our community would prefer to see cows, crops and farmland rather than the alternative of more concrete, cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Preserving a future for sustainable farming in Whatcom County is an issue of great importance for all of us and your Whatcom family farmers are encouraging you to become informed and get involved.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS, SERIES

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

Chairmen of the Whatcom Watershed Improvement Districts contributing to this column are Vern VandeGarde, Bertrand; Larry Stap, North Lynden; Mike Boxx, Laurel; Ed Blok, South Lynden; Brad Rader, Sumas; Marty Maberry, Drayton; and Scott Bedlington of the Ag Water Board.

We invite your participation in this community conversation. Send feedback to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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