Op-Ed

Washington’s ‘use it or lose it’ law hinders farm water efficiency

Jersey cows produce milk at a Whatcom County farm. In addition to a 1917 law that hinders water efficiency, farmers are concerned about regulatory cost increases in the state Department of Ecology’s new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit.
Jersey cows produce milk at a Whatcom County farm. In addition to a 1917 law that hinders water efficiency, farmers are concerned about regulatory cost increases in the state Department of Ecology’s new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit. The Bellingham Herald

Eric Hirst, in editorials published July 25 and July 31, makes many good points about increasing water use efficiency. He points out that agriculture is a large user of water but he may not be aware of the very significant gains in efficiency implemented by farmers. The majority of berry farmers have already installed the micro-irrigation technology that he says will provide up to 95 percent efficiency. Farmers have reduced water used to produce a unit of milk since 1950 by 60 percent.

While Hirst refers to a number of challenges to water efficiency, one of the greatest hindrances to further water conservation by farmers is the state’s “use it or lose it law.” The 1917 water code included a provision that water rights granted to a farmer could be withdrawn if the farmer did not demonstrate beneficial use of that water in a five year time period. Losing water rights is a serious matter as property value will decline with the loss of rights. This same law, called the “relinquishment” law, does not apply to other holders of water rights – only farmers. While Hirst promotes metering to know what farmers use, that answer is known. Because of “use it or lose it,” farmers will use as much as their water right allows. Anything less puts their property value at risk. Fixing this outdated code must be a priority for anyone concerned about improving efficiency.

Farmers know that protecting water, providing the open spaces to filter water, improving fish and wildlife habitat, carefully tending their animals and soils are essential to their future.

There is no water shortage crisis. Lower stream flows in late summer are a natural occurrence as we can see from the flow rate in the North Fork of the Nooksack where no water has been used for irrigation. Because fish need sufficient water in the streams, farmers are advocating for stream augmentation projects through the Watershed Improvement Districts. These pump water from wells where it can enter the streams, supplementing the low summer flow. It’s one more example of the kind of innovative environmental stewardship demonstrated by our family farmers.

Which brings us to the future. Will we have our farms in the future? We continue to be disappointed by a few activists in our community who either want to see our farms go away or are under the mistaken impression that farmers can simply absorb huge new regulatory costs. Some have taken positions on the state Department of Ecology’s new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit that would result in the loss of many, if not most, of our dairy farmers. They demand synthetic lagoon liners when the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes clear that current lagoons using the proper soil and cured manure liners are protective of water. Calls for higher costs for water used for irrigation are similar in that both are expensive solutions in search of a problem.

Meanwhile, our family farmers are hard at work addressing real water and environmental issues. As one farmer said recently, “Every day is Earth Day for farmers.” Farmers know that protecting water, providing the open spaces to filter water, improving fish and wildlife habitat, carefully tending their animals and soils are essential to their future. This is why the vast majority of those placing a high value on the environment want to see our farms here for the long term. They understand the alternative is not positive for water, wildlife or the environment. We need these environmentalists to speak up. The state Agriculture Department recently reported 97 percent of dairy farm acreage is in compliance with water quality protection. Ecology knows this. But they need to know you want to see our family farms remain.

Fred Likkel is executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers.

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