Op-Ed

Could a ‘water bank’ or city-share aid rural water rights after the Hirst decision?

A field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road east of Lynden is watered in 2015. The Washington state Supreme Court decision in the Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise, et al. case has raised concerns about rural water availability.
A field on Birch Bay-Lynden Road east of Lynden is watered in 2015. The Washington state Supreme Court decision in the Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise, et al. case has raised concerns about rural water availability. pdwuer@bhamherald.com

Researching and learning about the water rights issue in our county and state over the past several weeks has confused me more than it has clarified the options the County Council has to exercise. It is more complex than one can imagine, and there were many factors that contributed to the Washington state Supreme Court decision in the Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise, et al. case.

Many rural residents are angered and baffled by the ruling; they feel robbed and have expressed their dismay at the council because this Supreme Court ruling has their lives turned upside down. Though they are seeking answers from the administration, there are not many bright spots on the horizon at this time.

I would like to start a discussion with a few plausible solutions, which are in the purview of local residents and voters.

Many common-sense questions have been raised, such as:

▪ How come a typical rural home withdrawing 150 gallons per day and returning 90 percent of that water to the ground through a septic field is labeled as “depleting the water resources and affecting the in-stream flows”?

▪ The city of Bellingham, with 90,000 residents, uses 5 million gallons of water daily (add another 20 percent for commercial/industrial use), and dumps 6 million gallons of water into the bay with zero return to groundwater. Why is this act of water use is not under scrutiny?

▪ What is the motive behind the pursuit of the courts on rural water use? Is it about preserving water or is it about extinguishing rural growth by proxy?

Another highly discussed topic has been around Whatcom Public Utility District No. 1 and the city of Bellingham, which together hold almost 95 percent of the water rights. This amounts to 76 billion gallons per year of water, but they consume less than 8 billion gallons per year. This publicly owned water allocation has been in existence since 1937 and should be part of the discussion.

To me, this is not a partisan issue about being for or against environmental preservation. This is about the legacy we leave for future generations, and the issue of fairness to equally bear the burden that comes with leaving that legacy behind. I am in favor of being prudent about the use of our natural resources and I support the motto that we should leave this place in a better environmental state than what we received.

Rural residents are angry because they feel they have been singled out to pay for the environmental preservation. Their resentment comes from not being consulted about something that takes away their rights, their life savings, their lifestyle or even their retirement. The businesses and developers have the inherent ability to be compensated by passing on the additional costs of environmental laws to their final products. They get even when we, as consumers, pay for the costs of environmental preservation.

Landowners have no recourse when their land is declared as wetland or mandated buffers, or restricted water use or other requirements. An owner of a 20-acre parcel with 2 acres of wetland not only loses part of the land, but the whole property is devalued. The society must pay for such forced devaluation, because after all, it is the beneficiary. What about fairness? Our current system of penalizing landowners alone is not fair and it is not conducive towards their livelihoods, which often rely on that land in question.

Landowners are not the cause of climate change, or resource depletion or spoiling the environment for future generations. We all have been happy participants in the consumer economy and wasteful resource practices for the past 70 years, so why should one particular group bear the full brunt of climate change and limited resources? This must be a shared responsibility for all citizens.

I would like to start a discussion with a few plausible solutions, which are in the purview of local residents and voters.

▪ Whatcom Public Utility District No. 1/city of Bellingham shall relinquish water rights for 1 billion gallons per year (out of 76 billion gallons per year) in the favor of rural residents. This will cover almost all the rural lots for the next 30 years.

▪ All taxpayers shall bear the cost to truck 6,000 gallons of clean potable water every month in perpetuity to every lot affected by the Supreme Court decision, from the nearest city or potable water purveyor in the county.

▪ The exempt well owners to start a “water bank,” which will have more water than the city of Bellingham uses per day. This can then be a shared water resource for all rural residents.

▪ Whatcom Public Utility District No. 1 may contribute 1 billion gallons per year of its water rights to the “water bank.”

▪ Credit some water saved by drip irrigation practices by local farmers to the “water bank.”

Satpal S. Sidhu represents Whatcom County Council District 2, which includes Lynden and Maple Falls. Contact him at ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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