Community Conversation: Water management complexities start in Canada

Elvin Kalsbeek drives a tractor spreading fertilizer on one the fields he uses to grow silage and hay on near Acme in April, 2015. The state has expanded its drought declaration to include water basins in Whatcom County, including the Nooksack. Although he doesn't use water from the Nooksack river directly, the drought could affect the water levels of the wells he uses to irrigate the fields.
Elvin Kalsbeek drives a tractor spreading fertilizer on one the fields he uses to grow silage and hay on near Acme in April, 2015. The state has expanded its drought declaration to include water basins in Whatcom County, including the Nooksack. Although he doesn't use water from the Nooksack river directly, the drought could affect the water levels of the wells he uses to irrigate the fields. The Bellingham Herald

The sky is not falling when it comes to Whatcom County water. Yes, we are in a summer and a year of unusual drought. This may even continue for some time. But the rains will return and when they do it is likely that we will face our more common problem with water: too much of a good thing. We’ll deal with flooded fields, roads and streets, maybe even homes.

When you look at how much water we actually have and how it is replenished you will quickly see that all the users of water touch only a very small percentage of available water. We share our water with our neighbors to the north. As a matter of fact, much of the shallow groundwater that feeds our wells flows south from across the border. Some, near Sumas, reverses course and flows back north; but the majority flows south without even checking in with Customs. It’s a fact that a significant percentage of our groundwater originates in the fields, hills, streams, streets and parking lots from Langley to Abbotsford.


The aquifers, the vast underground reservoirs that hold our groundwater, are massive. The Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer is huge, one of the largest in the entire region. It covers an area of at least 77 square miles with about half in Canada and half in northern Whatcom County. This aquifer typically holds an estimated 257 billion gallons of water. Every drop withdrawn by the approximately 1 million users in Canada and far fewer users in Whatcom County, is replenished with the 32 inches to 60 inches of rain that fall each year in this area.

As large as this aquifer is, it is fairly shallow. Other aquifers in northern Whatcom County are far deeper with much of their water also flowing from Canada.

That’s groundwater. What about surface water in our rivers and streams? Let’s just look at the Nooksack River. The water that flows down the river mostly comes from the snow in the Mount Baker area. Information available from the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the flow in the Nooksack River on average is about 2.5 billion gallons per day, or approaching 900 billion gallons per year.


How much do farmers use? Based on crops, acreage and irrigation, it’s estimated that farmers use about 15 billion gallons annually.

If farmers drew all this water from the Nooksack it would amount to about 1.6 percent of the annual volume of water in the river. But, of course, they don’t draw it from the Nooksack. Less and less is taken from the river and farmers are working to end any stream withdrawals in favor of groundwater withdrawals.

So, if they drew all their water from just the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer, it would amount to less than 6 percent of the water held in just one aquifer. That is not counting the other deep aquifers nor the fact that rain normally recharges the aquifer annually with more water than has been withdrawn, including evaporation and plant use of water.

The sky may not be falling when it comes to the abundance of water. But, that does not mean there are not serious water management problems.

Farmers and others involved in water issues for many years have struggled with water access, not because of limited water but because of outdated laws and a confusing water allocation system with large water rights assigned to a number of users that don’t need them while some farmers find it impossible to secure the legal rights they need to farm.

There are water quality issues with higher-than-acceptable nitrates in some areas and fecal coliform counts that have resulted in shellfish bed closures. Then there are tribal treaty rights, including the need for sufficient water for fish and the desire of all for habitat protection and restoration.


These are complex issues.

They are made more complex because our water supply is shared with Canada. A couple of examples make that clear.

Farmers have been working for years through Watershed Improvement Districts to address the water in streams needed to support fish. The Bertrand Watershed Improvement District, for example, has tested stream augmentation using our abundant groundwater to replenish flow in the Bertrand Creek during the late summer and early fall months when it is most needed. They have also implemented a program to encourage farmers to transfer their irrigation water rights from the stream to groundwater supply wells, again with the intent of improving flow in the stream. But, how do you solve the problem of sufficient flow when Canadian landowners are putting in small dams to stop the flow on their portion of the Bertrand Creek and other streams that originate in Canada?


Then there is the concern about water quality. Nitrates above the federal maximum contamination levels are found in over 20 percent of wells in some areas of northern Whatcom County as they have been since testing began. Whatcom County’s family dairy farmers have been working hard to reduce any contribution from manure.

The Dairy Nutrient Management Act helps ensure manure is applied when the growing plants can properly absorb the nitrogen. But dairy, poultry and mushroom farms across the border have neither the regulations nor the proactive measures taken by our local farmers.

Fecal coliform? Dairies have been getting the blame, unfairly. Finger-pointing at manure lagoons ignores the fact that very little leaks from them, much less than from the 13,000 residential septic systems in our community.

Water testing data shows where fecal coliform is coming from and after passage of the dairy regulations, contributions from manure are considerably lower than from other sources. Again, our shared water becomes an issue. When very high levels of fecal coliform streamed across the border into the Jackman Ditch in the Bertrand watershed in June, 2014, it made national news in Canada, but not a single mention in U.S. or local news. Meanwhile, a Seattle TV station came to town in late 2014 and placed all the blame for shellfish bed closures on our family dairy farmers.


This is not to throw our northern neighbors under the bus. Our purpose here is to help those concerned understand that our water problems are not about limited supply. Metering, irrigation taxes and other “solutions” only detract from the real issues and the pursuit of real solutions.

We applaud those who show concern over these issues and we welcome all those interested to become better informed and support the efforts of farmers, tribal leaders and government officials in addressing the real problems. Whatcom family farmers firmly believe with appropriate water management it is possible to have the fish and habitat needed by the tribes to support their culture and traditional way of life. And that we can also supply the needs of our growing communities for clean water while still providing sufficient water helping ensure a secure future for our family farmers.


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

Scott Bedlington, Marty Maberry and Ed Blok are members of the Ag Water Board and Watershed Improvement Districts. More information about water issues and farming can be found at whatcomfamilyfarmers.org, a cooperative effort of the Whatcom County Dairy Federation and the Ag Water Board representing the Watershed Improvement Districts.

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