Community Conversation: Whatcom County should consider conservation, recycling of water

It is time to get serious about water in Whatcom County.

All too often, consideration of water issues in the county focuses on what we cannot do rather than on what we can do. Water has been, for years, more of a political issue than a real issue. We have plenty of water, but little will to use it well.

“Plenty of water? How can he say that? Hasn’t he heard about in-stream flows and tribal water rights?”

In stream flows and tribal rights are real issues but, for lack of good will, they have been wrapped in the blanket of politics and probably will not be properly addressed for decades.

Even with the challenges tribal rights and in-stream flows pose, the water issue is solvable. Getting serious about water means investigating and investing in the many options for conservation, recycling and reuse of the water we do have available to us and, working to adopt technologies that can provide water without the need to withdraw it from groundwater systems.

Water can be recycled and, in areas where a true, rather than manufactured, water shortage exist it is recycled, in very large quantities. The City of Bellingham, for example, pumps tens of millions of gallons of usable water per day into Bellingham Bay.

That same water, pumped upstream and injected into the groundwater system of the Nooksack, would replace the potential withdrawals of 11,000 exempt wells serving the homes and farms of Whatcom County. Since most homes use less than four hundred gallons of water per day and, outside the city most of that is returned to the soil, the actual effect would be four to five times higher. Both fish and small farmers would benefit.

Bertrand Creek in Lynden is a water body also subject to violations of in-stream flows. Water from Lynden’s treatment plants could also be injected into the groundwater system to both assure in-stream flow improvements and, to serve, after filtering through millions of cubic feet of earth, individual wells in the north county.

Agriculture? According to the EPA, secondary treatment of waste water allows for direct application to fields. In fact, in the real world, waste water is routinely used to benefit both man and beast. According to the EPA:

“Water recycling has proven to be effective and successful in creating a new and reliable water supply without compromising public health. Nonpotable reuse is a widely accepted practice that will continue to grow. However, in many parts of the United States, the uses of recycled water are expanding in order to accommodate the needs of the environment and growing water supply demands. Advances in wastewater treatment technology and health studies of indirect potable reuse have led many to predict that planned indirect potable reuse will soon become more common. Recycling waste and gray water requires far less energy than treating salt water using a desalination system.”

Treated water, like that coming from Bellingham, Lynden, Everson, Blaine, or Ferndale’s waste treatment plants, should be viewed as a resource, not tossed away. We used to bury our cans, bottles and other recyclable materials in a dump. Throwing our treated wastewater away is the modern equivalent.

New technologies for “creating” water for home and business use are also coming onto the marketplace. The atmosphere, especially in areas like Whatcom County but also in desert areas, holds billions of gallons of water that’s evaporated but not yet returned to the environment in the form of rain or dew. Using technologies similar to the heat pumps that warm and cool our homes, some of that water can be condensed out of the atmosphere and used.

Less sophisticated technologies are available as well. In the water-short San Juan Islands rainwater is routinely recovered, stored and treated in-home to provide water for the homes of the county.

Literally hundreds of solutions that are good for plants, fish, animals and humans exist to address our purported water shortages in Whatcom County. We spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars working to address what one group or another says we cannot do with our water. How about we spend a few dollars on what we can do with our water resource?


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

Jack Petree of Bellingham is the author of many national magazine articles on public policy issues, including urban planning.

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