Community Conversation: Collaborating to solve Whatcom’s water problems

Lummi Nation fishers use reef net canoes near Lummi Island, circa 1960.
Lummi Nation fishers use reef net canoes near Lummi Island, circa 1960. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

If there’s a goal everyone can agree upon, it’s that we need enough clean water to go around. Water supports salmon and shellfish harvests, is essential to businesses big and small, and is required for productive agriculture. In Whatcom County, water contributes to the natural beauty that attracts visitors and residents alike.

Because water is a limited natural resource, a conflict over water use and management exists. Added to the issue of scarcity is the fact that federally reserved tribal water rights have not been quantified and many state and federal water use and protection laws have not been enforced. Finding a global solution to this complex problem is no simple task.


Our treaty rights require a sufficient quantity and quality of water to support the Lummi Indian Reservation as a permanent and economically viable homeland for our people and to support a sustainable, harvestable surplus of salmon and shellfish. In negotiating the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, our past leaders recognized water as the lifeblood of our people and took extraordinary measures to protect it. Without water our Schelangen, or “way of life,” cannot be sustained.

The tribe has spent over two decades working to resolve long-standing conflicts over water usage. In 1998, community leaders agreed to work together to resolve these disputes. The Lummi Nation, together with city, county and tribal partners began the challenging process of cooperatively managing the Nooksack River watershed. Along with a largely volunteer group of citizens, this group came to a consensus on how to address a large number of issues from 1999-2005. The parties agreed on what technical information is needed to make the best decisions, who would conduct and fund studies to gather this information and, probably most importantly, how to work together to solve a community problem. Unfortunately, a subsequent five-year effort to negotiate a long-term water management plan was unsuccessful. Because of the gridlock in negotiations, the Lummi Nation requested that the United States file litigation to quantify the Lummi federally reserved water rights.


Based on prior experience, we know that once litigation is filed a judge will first direct the parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Last fall we began working with our partners in an attempt to jumpstart this process and seek a negotiated settlement prior to the litigation. We began with discussions with the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and met with representatives from the Washington Department of Ecology, the Governor’s Office, Public Utility District No. 1 of Whatcom County, the agricultural community, Whatcom County, city of Bellingham, and the city of Lynden to present a settlement proposal concept that addresses instream flows, water quality, fish habitat, water supply and accountability of all water users.

We are now moving into a phase where the concepts in the proposal will be fleshed out. We will work with our partners in the coming months to add details, identify points of agreement and disagreement, and identify and evaluate alternatives. This has been a long and thoughtful process, and our goal is to work with affected parties to reach a fair and sound settlement agreement that can be signed by July 2017. It’s a timeline that began many years ago with an engaged group of stakeholders and we’re grateful to those who have taken part in a productive conversation.


Our treaty rights require a water management plan that ensures the right quantity and quality of water supply for our reservation and to support healthy fish and shellfish habitat. But water rights and water quality isn’t just a Lummi issue, it’s a human one. Everyone needs a clean, ample supply of water. Our entire community — from business owners and residents, to farmers and fishers — deserve peace of mind that a plan to manage Whatcom County’s water is borne out of collaboration, grounded in the best science and law, and reflects the needs of all water users. Moving forward with critical conversations on water in our county, we’ll continue to strive for these goals as we strike a balance between managing water for multiple users and protecting our treaty rights to ensure our way of life continues well into the future.


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

Tim Ballew II is chairman of the Lummi Indian Business Council.

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