WATER MANAGEMENT AND THE FUTURE OF FARMING IN WHATCOM COUNTY
For there to be a future for farming in Whatcom County, our family farmers need a dependable and uninterruptible supply of water.
That’s just common sense. Crop farmers work and invest year round for a harvest payday that can last from a few days to a month or so. Dairy farmers’ thin margins can quickly disappear if they can’t water their fields and forage crops. If our farmers cannot be certain they will have access to the water they need when they most need it, they reasonably ask why even try? Why invest, work hard, and pay all the high costs of today’s farming if they can’t be certain they will have what they need to survive?
Most in our community do not understand this is the question facing our family farmers today. Why is this time so critical? Haven’t farmers always had enough water? Why are farmers so concerned now that they won’t have it?
The pressure on water access for farmers has been gradually increasing over the past two decades to the point where legal challenges, political pressures, adverse court decisions, environmental activism and other forces have raised this issue to the boiling point.
Despite being one of the best places in the world to farm, the future of farming in Whatcom County is far from certain. More than just farmers care about the future of farming here. We believe that most in our community also care about farming. Even if community members do not know farmers personally or have little thought for the food being produced, they know if we lose our farmers we also lose our farmland. We won’t lose it to well-kept empty fields and rolling meadows, but to housing, retail, warehouses and other features of suburbia. All we have to do is look around other areas of Puget Sound that have already lost their local farmers. Because decisions about water management are ultimately made by judges, regulators and elected leaders the final decision about these issues rests with the voters — the citizens of our state and community. That’s why Whatcom family farmers want you to become informed and become actively involved in our efforts to secure a future for farming here.
Here is what you need to know about our farmers, water and the future of farming:
We have lots of water but we need better management.
Outdated water laws discourage conservation.
Legal water right assignments need to be rational and science-based.
With proper management we can have both fish and farms.
Whatcom family farmers have been and will continue to be leaders in conserving water and addressing the serious water management issues
1. We have lots of water but we need better management.
The problems with water access are not really about limited supply but about how well we are managing that supply. While most of the time we have more than enough and often far too much, there are times when the supply is tight, particularly in a serious drought and hot dry summer. That’s when effective water management is essential.
Even with the million plus people using our water supply, we normally have more available than needed. Yes, there are a million or more because we share watersheds and aquifers with our friendly neighbors to the north. About 50% of the massive Abbotsford-Sumas underground aquifer under our feet is north of the border. While some water in the Sumas river valley flows north, much of our groundwater comes south across the border without even checking in with Customs! How much water? The 77 square mile Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer holds an estimated 257 billion gallons. Since this area gets from 32 to 60 inches of rain each year, that huge reservoir is more than topped off each year despite the many and varied users of the water. That’s just one of several large underground reservoirs. Other aquifers in northern Whatcom County likely hold considerably more water as they tend to be much deeper.
That’s groundwater. We also have streams and a river named the Nooksack. While there is some interchange of groundwater and river water, most of that water comes from the snowpack in the mountains near Mt. Baker. How much water flows down the river? About 2.5 billion gallons per day on average, or about 900 billions gallons per year. The amount of water in the river varies a lot depending on rainfall and snow. Even though few farmers draw much irrigation water from the river anymore, if every farmer irrigated all cropland to the maximum with river water, it would take less than 1.5 percent of the total amount in the river.
Yes, we normally have lots of water. But that does not mean farmers have a secure supply of it. Water access is about management policies, laws, regulations, tribal treaty rights, competing demands and other factors.
2. Outdated laws discourage conservation.
Farmers want to conserve water. Why? Farmers are responsible stewards of the land, they know that maintaining adequate water in our streams is essential for fish, and they are part of a community where more and more water is needed for the growing population. Whatcom family farmers have been working on water conservation for years particularly in the joint efforts called the Watershed Improvement Districts. Micro-irrigation is one tool used by berry farmers, for example, to increase efficiency of the water use and therefore reduce the amount of water used for the crops raised. Dairies have become far more efficient users of water. According to Cornell University, today’s dairy farmers use 65% less water per gallon of milk produced than they did in 1944, even while greatly increasing production and efficiency. Reduction in carbon footprint matches that of water, but farmers are going further seeking greater reductions in water and environmental impact.
But, there is a problem. If you have the legal right to use water, you must continue to use it to the full extent of the water right or risk losing that right. It’s called the “use it or lose” it water law and it serves as a disincentive to farmers to reduce water use. For a sparsely populated state looking to create incentives for more agriculture in the early 1900s, water rights forfeiture made some sense. Not everyone who has water rights need the water and this law provides that unused water rights can be relinquished back to the state and provided to someone else who can use it. Here’s how the state describes this “relinquishment” law:
“Put simply, a water right may be wholly or partially lost through extended periods of non-use. The return of unused water to the state is called relinquishment. The purpose of relinquishment is to ensure that Washington’s limited water sources are put to maximum beneficial use for all of Washington’s citizens.”
While well intended and useful in the last century, this law is now a problem for those who want to conserve water but maintain their valuable water rights. If a farmer is using 100,000 gallons to irrigate but increases efficiency and reduces that to 75,000 gallons, that farmer stands to lose 25% of his or her water right after five years. Since the water right is tied to the land, if the farmer wants to sell the land, the land value will be diminished by the reduced water right.
Whatcom family farmers want this relinquishment law to change so that it does not discourage conservation and does not reduce farmland value if more efficient irrigation methods are used.
3. Legal water right allocations need to be rational and science-based.
One of the most fundamental and difficult challenges involved in water is our current state of legal water rights. The legal and regulatory system grew out of the water code of 1917 and has not kept pace with changing demands and new realities. Critics of farming may be quick to throw accusations of water theft and illegal water use at farmers, but the truth is that most farmers have worked closely and cooperatively with the State Department of Ecology which manages water rights. Decades ago, many farmers applying to Ecology for legal water rights were told to continue farming operations while the Department would at some point in the future process the water right applications. Over time, the new agency rules and Court decisions changed the rules of the game, leaving many farmers in the lurch. Despite this uncertainty, Ecology has shown some degree of flexibility and willingness to assist farmers under the changing rules and conditions and supported the creation of Watershed Improvement Districts in Whatcom County to provide a structure to assist agriculture landowners in resolving water right issues.
One area where Ecology changed the rules of the game is in “hydraulic continuity.” The legal right to draw from streams and rivers is under extreme pressure to maintain instream flows to protect fish, but transferring those historic rights to plentiful groundwater withdrawal has been stymied by the idea of hydraulic continuity. This issue was the subject of court decisions over a decade ago, and has now resulted in groundwater uses being treated as if they have streamflow impacts identical to direct surface water withdrawals. But neither best science nor court decisions require this, and neither should Ecology. Hydrogeologists will confirm that the connection between groundwater and surface water will vary greatly based on numerous variables, and that groundwater withdrawals can be used to lessen streamflow impacts. But when Ecology’s rules and decisions treat groundwater withdrawals as equivalent to direct surface water diversions, it prevents such opportunities to improve water management in the Nooksack Basin. This is why farmers near the Nooksack who were stopped from withdrawing water based on the 1985 instream flow rule are finding it nearly impossible to get new groundwater rights. Water rights granted after 1985 are subject to instream flow rules so that if the surface water goes below a set level, those water rights are interruptible. 2015 was a serious drought year and several farmers in Whatcom county did have their irrigation water interrupted. This is the kind of situation that requires a new approach to water management throughout the year, and flexibility, common sense and the use of best available science to protect fish, the environment and the survival of farming.
4. With proper management we can have both fish and farms.
Sometimes the discussions about water in Whatcom County can lead one to believe that it is about choosing between fish and farming. That is simply not true. We can have both fish and farms, but it takes wise, rational management of not just water, but of the environment and the fish resource.
We made the point earlier that we have lots of water, including in the Nooksack river. It certainly varies based on rainfall and snowpack but farmer’s use of water has minimal impact on the amount of water in the river and no impact above the three forks of the Nooksack where fish habitat is critical. Fish-bearing streams are also an issue and farmers have been working hard for many years and investing millions of their own dollars to help address the flow of water in streams needed to sustain fish. One example is work within the Bertrand Creek watershed to supplement the flow in the creek at critical times of the year by pumping from plentiful groundwater. Another effort involves transferring existing surface water rights that can affect stream flows to groundwater rights that would have minimal if any impact. Farmers have also been working hard to improve habitat and the environment for fish including participating in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program managed by the Whatcom Conservation District. 359 projects have created 167 miles of stream buffer and planted over one million seedlings to help shade water and improve the habitat.
But to have the fish and farms, we need to look at all aspects of the dramatic reduction in fish in our rivers, streams and saltwater. All factors related to increasing the number of fish must be included in the discussion such as tribal and non-tribal harvests and legal action by environmental groups that interrupted a successful fish hatchery program on the Nooksack river. Whatcom farmers are looking closely at the proposed pilot saltwater salmon hatchery as described in House Bill 1270 and sponsored by Representative Vincent Buys. Based on very successful hatchery programs in Alaska that have provided that state with 110% of the salmon that was available in the late 1800s, this idea is one example of possible realistic, practical solutions to increasing fish in our rivers and streams.
Water management is the key to our shared goal of having sufficient water for fish and farms. That means making best, most efficient use of the water resource but also managing water availability which is more than enough in rainy winters to sometimes too little in hot, thirsty summers. Solutions farmers are investigating include in-basin transfers where some aquifers with lots of water and little demand can help supply water to streams when and where it is most needed. Farmers are also investigating storage of both groundwater and surface water. Our aquifers and streams are filled to overflowing often in the snowy, rainy winters to the point of flooding, drainage problems, environmental and property damage. Storing that excess for when it is most needed is a potentially practical and multipurpose solution. Unlike other major rivers systems in Washington State, the Nooksack river lacks seasonal seasonal water storage. Anyone driving Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90 has seen the large storage lakes that use winter rains and snow to hold Yakima river water so that it can be used months later for agricultural production. Similarly, the hydroelectric storage lakes on the Skagit and other rivers provide flexibility in managing water supplies not currently available on the Nooksack. This is but one potential solution that needs careful study.
Stream flow mitigation efforts represent the “low hanging fruit” advocated by Whatcom Family Farmers. Wells drawing from plentiful aquifers can be used to supplement the water in streams in those critical few months of the year when additional water is needed to protect fish. Washington state can make this happen and we believe this should be implemented sooner than later.
5. Whatcom family farmers have been and will continue to be leaders in conserving water and addressing the serious water management issues.
Whatcom family farmers are agricultural leaders, but also leaders in water management, fish protection and environmental restoration. We already mentioned micro-irrigation used by many berry farmers which enables plants to use water efficiently while reducing waste by significant margins and the dramatic efficiency improvements in water use by our dairy farmers. This leadership applies not just to using water but protecting its quality. Whatcom dairy farmers are leaders in water quality improvements through implementation of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act and numerous proactive measures including the four anaerobic bio-gas digesters operating in the county.
One of the most important steps toward long term water management solutions was taken with the creation of the six Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs). These are government entities formed and led by farmers who support their projects financially. The Bertrand WID has been operating for nearly twelve years and is a proven leader in research, water conservation, habitat and environmental restoration, stream augmentation and more. The other WIDs have formed more recently but all are identifying priority projects and working together to provide the leadership that Whatcom county citizens have come to expect from their farmers.
Whatcom family farmers need your help and support.
We hope you better understand the important water management issues facing our community and our farmers. Whatcom county is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and carry on the fishing and farming occupations enjoyed by generations. It’s also a great place to raise incredibly high quality food. We believe most people in our community see that preserving a future for our family farmers is in all our interests. But farmers can’t do it alone. We invite you to join us.
STATEMENT ON LARGE ECOLOGY FINE FOR ILLEGAL WATER USE
The Lynden Tribune published this report on the fine and position of Whatcom Family Farmers on this situation.
Whatcom Family Farmer’s Statement on Whatcom Berry Farm Fine for Illegal Water Use
On December 27, 2106 the Washington State Department of Ecology issued a very large fine of $102,000 to a Whatcom County berry farmer for illegal water use and failure to submit water use records. The fine was issued to Gurjant “George” Sandhu, owner of several berry farms in the Nooksack drainage.
Whatcom Family Farmers is not aware of the specific circumstances of this alleged violation and the efforts that the Department states they made to work constructively with the farmer. We hope that is the case. However, this very significant fine highlights an issue that threatens the future of most farming in Whatcom County.
The press release from the Department states that illegal water use can negatively affect Nooksack River flows. Farmers are very aware of the need to maintain adequate flows in the Nooksack River as well as the streams that feed the river in order to protect fish and fish habitat. However, we do not have a lack of water in Whatcom County. We have more than adequate water to support fish, farming and our growing community. But, we do have a serious water management crisis made more visible to the general public through the unfortunate recent decision of the State Supreme Court.
Farmers have successfully converted long standing rights to draw water from streams, called surface water, to draw from wells using groundwater. This protects streams and habitat in the summer when flows are naturally lower and farmers are irrigating crops. Our groundwater aquifer is massive and is more than fully recharged every year thanks to abundant rains and snow. Court decisions as interpreted by the Department of Ecology have prevented further conversions aimed at protecting habitat and have even prevented the effort of farmers in the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District to use our fully recharged aquifer to help improve stream flows during the critical weeks of little rain. It’s important to note that there are no reliable scientific studies that support the Court’s position on the issue of hydraulic continuity.
These disastrous and counter-productive decisions by the Court need to be addressed by the State Legislature. Fish habitat and the future of farming is at stake. Farmers have waited for too long for the state to address the needs for actual water rights for farming. Outdated laws that prevent further water conservation by farmers need to be changed. The Legislature needs to use real data in determining appropriate water rights, not pure conjecture.
The massive fine issued to this berry farmer brings attention to the much greater economic loss experienced by many county landowners due to these Court decisions. Farmers are hoping that the bitter consequences of the Hirst decision will bring needed public attention and legislative action to an issue that has hindered farming and environmental protection for too long.
FARMERS RESPOND TO CALLS FOR WATER METERING AND WATER TAX
February 15, 2016
Recently the Lynden Tribune ran an article about the call for a water tax and water meters to support that tax. We applaud the effort of anyone in our community to come to grips with our water issues and farming, but we believe this approach is going in the wrong direction.
We have problems with water in this community, but it’s not because we don’t have enough. We have lots of water, enough to provide the fish and fish habitat so important to our tribal friends and neighbors, enough to provide for our highly productive farmers and enough to provide for a growing community. In others words, there is water for fish, farms and families. What is needed is a better system for managing our water supplies to reduce impacts on smaller tributaries and incentivize water conservation.
The major aquifer used by farmers and residents using wells is called the Sumas Abbotsford aquifer and it is estimated to hold 257 billion gallons. All water users in Whatcom County use about 10% of that each year. Think of it as a big bank. In the dry summer we all draw a small percentage from the bank, but the bank account or aquifer is more than refilled every year.
What about surface water? The flow of the Nooksack alone is about 900 billion gallons per year. If all farmers drew all their irrigation water from the Nooksack alone, it would amount to little more than 1% of the river’s total. But, they don’t. Most draw from the groundwater aquifer.
This does not mean there are no water problems. The flow in the Nooksack and tributaries such as Bertrand, Fishtrap and other creeks and streams is much lower in the summer than in the winter. It’s not appropriate to blame this lowered flow on farmers irrigating their crops. The river is fed mostly by rains in the mountains and melting snowpack. It does rain less in the summer than winter, and the massive snow melts we see during flood season don’t occur in the dry summers. We’re pretty sure this was happening before farming started in the Nooksack valley, even before Native Americans arrived to start harvesting the then plentiful salmon.
Farmers are concerned about low stream flows in the summer. This gets to one of the real problems we have with water. There is plenty of water but many farmers have been waiting for over thirty years for the state to grant the water rights the state told them to apply for. There are farmers who have legal rights to draw water from streams and the river. In the Nooksack drainage, farmers would like to see as many of those surface water rights converted to groundwater rights as possible. This would help reduce impacts from irrigation on stream flows during the critical summer months, but this type of exchange is complicated by current regulations that prevent beneficial water management solutions.
Despite this bureaucratic slowdown, farmers with groundwater rights have been attempting to use their available water rights during the hot summer months to increase the flow into streams such as the Bertrand. This project, called “stream augmentation” has been a project of the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District for some time. But again, bureaucratic delay is keeping this laudable effort from moving forward.
Do we need to meter water to encourage farmers to conserve? Actually, metering may well cause an increase in water use. Farmers are already working hard at conserving water. Most berry farmers use micro-irrigation which dramatically reduces water use. Dairy farms have reduced water use by about 60% over the past twenty years. But there is a unique problem farmers have with conservation: our state law discourages it. That’s correct. Unlike municipal water rights, farmers are subject to the state’s relinquishment law, otherwise known as “use it or lose it.” If farmers do not use their full water rights over a period of five years, they will lose those rights. Those rights are attached to the land so the land value is diminished because of that loss. Farmers need to use all their water rights under this law. Metering would no doubt result in greater water use and less conservation because farmers will want to make sure they use all the water their rights allow. We want to change that outdated law because we see that it hinders conservation. But until the law is changed, metering will cause greater water use.
There is no water shortage that justifies metering or a new tax on farmers. Farming is never easy and right now our berry farmers are significantly affected by the strong US dollar that makes importing competitive berries from Eastern Europe and South America far less expensive. Dairy producers are also affected by the strong dollar and a global oversupply of milk. Pressure is being applied against farmers in a number of different directions including very real threats of lawsuits and extremely expensive new proposed state regulations that would force many of our dairies out of business.
Eric Hirst and Michael Lilliquist in 2008 wrote on the Futurewise website:
“Whatcom County is losing its rural areas to sprawl at an alarming rate —faster than any other county in Washington—and a lower population projection supports agricultural preservation. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that, between 1982 and 2003, an average of 1,200 acres a year of farms and forests were converted to urban uses. Worse, the pace of conversion is accelerating. We ought to focus on this problem, rather than accommodate ourselves to continual population growth.”
We couldn’t agree with Mr. Hirst and Mr. Lilliquist more on this point. But adding a new and unnecessary tax to farmers already pressured in multiple directions does not aid in this important cause. Requiring expensive meters or adding new farm taxes will likely result in an even faster conversion from productive farms to urban sprawl. The reasoning behind a water tax is flawed, but worse, the results of one could be very damaging.