This op-ed written by Rich Appel originally appeared in the Bellingham Herald on Nov. 13, 2020. 

Salmon are part of what makes Whatcom County such a beautiful place to live. Farms play a large role in protecting salmon, however, both farms and salmon are in peril.

The Lummi Nation and Whatcom farmers signed an agreement called the Portage Bay Partnership Jan. 5, 2017. The agreement ended threats of legal action against farmers for water quality concerns and pledged farmers and the tribe would work together to improve farm operations and address all sources of water contamination. The goal was to re-open the Portage Bay shellfish beds and provide lasting solutions to water quality in the Nooksack basin.

Just over two years later, the state Department of Health re-opened the shellfish beds for most of the year due to improving water quality. Farm-destroying litigation was stopped. Local communities and the county expanded their work in reducing contamination from stormwater runoff and septic systems. Significant contamination from Canada had been entering our local streams and affecting the shellfish beds, but we recently learned the contamination has been reduced due to efforts of landowners and officials across the border.

Whatcom County is blessed with plenty of water, but too often legal, bureaucratic, financial and policy obstacles get in the way of effectively managing them. The Portage Bay Partnership may very well serve as a model for addressing current and future obstacles. With fish recovery on the table, the Portage Bay Partnership is proof that tribes and farmers have similar goals and that farms and fish can both exist in sustainable ways.

The question is, will our state government allow these crucial partnerships to happen? Recently the Washington State Department of Ecology informed community leaders that the state may request that courts determine who has the right to water. This would force our community to turn over the keys of our natural resources to lawyers and judges instead of a collaborative community process.

The Department of Ecology needs to take a step back. Gov. Jay Inslee and Ecology Director Laura Watson need to allow and support cooperative processes like the Portage Bay Partnership to resolve the remaining issues. Adjudication, as the court process is called, will turn the issue over to lawyers. This process forces each stakeholder into their own corners, halting both the good work now underway and the partnerships that would best resolve water use.

Rich Appel is a Whatcom dairy farmer and president of Whatcom Family Farmers.