Time to speak on future Whatcom County water resources plans

Whatcom County is home to forested hills, snow-capped mountains, glacier-fed rivers, fertile soils and sparkling seas. Each one of us decided to call this place home for a reason — maybe for the economic opportunities, the outdoor recreation or the beautiful natural environment. One thing these features share in common — and all of us as residents rely upon — is clean water.

Whatcom County appears to have sufficient water, given our high average annual rainfall (42 inches per year). Yet we don’t have enough water to sustain our fish population in the summer months while balancing increasing demand from a growing population, agricultural needs and industry.

Citizens have between now and June 28 to voice concerns about water resources by writing to the council or speaking at public hearings.

Last year’s drought is still fresh in everyone’s minds. We saw the extreme impacts of this water deficit: 5,400 rainbow trout at Whatcom Falls Park Hatchery and over 1.5 million juvenile Coho and Steelhead statewide died from high stream temperatures. Rural residents reported their wells went dry. Farmers reported smaller crop yields and Washington’s agriculture industry lost an estimated $335 million. Droughts like last year’s could soon be the new normal, further pressuring our limited water resources.

We at RE Sources want our county to find collaborative, action-oriented solutions to our county’s growing water quantity and quality issues. We are committed to working together as a county – the only way we’ll get anywhere – to achieve enough available clean water for fish, farms and people to survive. Right now we have a rare and powerful opportunity to enact some of those solutions in our Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan.

Comprehensive Plan

By 2036, county and city planners expect us to have about 75,000 new neighbors. The plan dictates how we will answer questions like how much sprawl should we allow to overtake farm and forestlands? How we will prioritize growing demands for finite resources like clean water? How will we attract businesses that provide sustainable jobs and can help build a thriving local economy? How can we protect the irreplaceable natural and cultural resources we all value? The comprehensive plan is just that – comprehensive. It is our foundation, our vision of what we want Whatcom County to look like in 2036.

RE Sources believes Whatcom County citizens have an obligation to participate in this process, since we are the ones who will be living with whatever future is determined. In fact, we must participate.

We are in the final stages of the update process. Right now, the Whatcom County Council is reviewing the last three years of work by staff, citizen groups, appointed commissions and consultants. If we’re going to plan a better future for our water resources – one that ensures there is enough clean water available for fish, farms, and people – this is our last chance to get language in the plan that does just that. Citizens have between now and June 28 to voice concerns about water resources by writing to the council or speaking at public hearings.

When the community speaks up, the council listens! RE Sources advocated for the addition of a section on aquatic lands in the Resource Lands chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, and the council is now working with staff to draft language for this new section. We are also asking the council to include language to support the agriculture community in gaining legal access to water; to lead the coordination of all local water and land management efforts to ensure adequate oversight of water quantity and quality issues; and to develop and implement an action plan to explore county water metering options.

But it’s not just about water. RE Sources also wants to see language in the plan that protects the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve from turning into a short-sighted fossil fuel export hub. We want the county to update the 2007 Climate Action Plan so that we can mitigate our impact on and adapt to climate change. We want the council to keep our cities compact to protect our forests and farmlands. In short, we want the Whatcom County Council to commit to a smarter, more sustainable future with this Comprehensive Plan update, and it’s up to all of us to engage in the process to help them see what our future should look like.

Kate Blystone is RE Sources program director. RE Sources, founded in 1982 as Bellingham Community Recycling, promotes sustainable communities and seeks to protect the health of northwestern Washington people and ecosystems through science, education and advocacy. For more information online, go to .re-sources.org.