Farmers challenge water myths: good stewards, aid environment

We all know the old saw: “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.”

There are some misstatements of fact about our family farmers and water issues circulating over and over. We’d like to set the record straight before real damage is done.

Dairy farmers and shellfish bed closures — times have changed.

Media reports and the lawyers who generate them have loudly claimed that the closure of the Portage Bay shellfish beds is because of pollution from dairy farms. Sadly, that was largely true 20 years ago, but not today. Today your dairy farmers manage their organic fertilizer called manure with exceptional care. Strict regulations and enforcement help ensure that, but so does the stewardship ethic that has led many of our farmers to go beyond the regulations to help minimize runoff, overapplication of nutrients and leakage from dairy lagoons. Today’s bacteria problems causing the tragic closure of these shellfish beds come primarily from urban stormwater runoff, residential septic systems, wildfowl increases and contaminated water flowing across the border from Canada. The science, studies and news reports that back these claims can be found on our website at whatcomfamilyfarmers.org.

Farmers don’t steal water or operate illegally in using water to irrigate.

Some state as a fact that 70 percent of farmer water use is “illegal” or unpermitted and that a number of farmers are stealing water from the streams and Nooksack. It just isn’t so. We investigated the claims of water theft and found them without merit. As the lead hydrologist for this region said recently in a meeting, “Immoral or illegal use of water by local farmers is very rare if it happens at all.” So why does this keep coming up? Legal water rights in this state are a mess, and have been for a long time. This not only applies to farmers but anyone who needs a permit to use water. Because of the tangled mess, for nearly 30 years the Department of Ecology has been saying to those who apply for legal rights, “go ahead and submit your application, use the water as if you have the right and we will get the rules figured out.” It is like going to get your driver’s license and the license department says, “We are really backed up right now, but go ahead and drive and we’ll get around to getting you a license.” So you drive, asking all the time, “Ready to issue licenses yet?” Then come those loud voices who claim “70 percent of farm water use is illegal!” Those still waiting for a permit number far less than the 70 percent claimed. Farmers are not stealing water, but working cooperatively with the department to ensure they are following the directions and rules, even in this difficult summer of heat and drought when following those rules and directives damaged the crops and incomes of many of our farmers.

Farming doesn’t hurt the environment, it is a critical part of environmental protection.

The biggest untruth is that farmers hurt the environment. This is promoted even by some higher ups in state government. Water pollution is coming more and more from non-farm sources. There is clear and compelling evidence that urban development, more residences in traditional farmland, and water flowing from Canada are our primary concerns. Yet, there are those who want to see farmers leave our community thinking that this will improve the environment. There are 100,000 acres of fields, meadows and cropland that serve our area as the best filter to clean our normally heavy rains. A recent story in the Seattle Times showing the deaths of coho salmon in streams is caused by road runoff and the best solution is to filter that runoff through soil — the very soil that the anti-farm voices want converted to concrete and cul-de-sacs. It doesn’t make sense and it certainly isn’t supported by science. More than filter water, that farmland serves as home to deer, raccoons, coyotes and ever increasing numbers of swans and geese. Farmers are also leaders in fish habitat restoration actively working to increase stream flow during the dry summer months and helping in planting over one million trees and restoring more than 160 miles of streamside habitat.

Your Whatcom County family farmers are stewards of the environment and, in addition to growing some of the best, highest quality berries, potatoes, dairy products and other produce in the world, are also responsible, concerned caretakers of your water and environment. We are committed to continuing to work to improve our water and protect our environment along with our cities, county, tribal governments and utilities district. Farmers compete against farmers in other states and other countries and simply can’t stay in business with the high costs of legal defense and massive new regulations that hurt rather than help. One farmer said recently that in no other time in our history of farming in this community have we faced such serious threats. Farmers know that without the active support of many in our community, we cannot win the battle and keep farming alive and healthy for the next generation.


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

Rich Appel, chairman of the Media & Communications Committee of Whatcom Family Farmers, wrote this for the organization’s board of directors. For more information about the group online, go to whatcomfamilyfarmers.org.

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