Critical projects will protect families, fish and farms – but will require community-wide collaboration

By Rich Appel, President, Whatcom Family Farmers

Families across Whatcom County devastated by November’s flooding disaster in the Nooksack River Basin need our help with more than just putting their lives back together.

It is urgent that we come together as a local community and do everything we can to keep a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

As farmers, we too have felt the devastation, and know how critical it is for our entire community to act now on real solutions. But how?

As recently as this summer, low river flows have killed thousands of endangered salmon. Yet just a few months later, communities were inundated with historic amounts of water, leading to death and destruction for people, homes and the environment – including countless endangered salmon.

Though seemingly opposites, both crises have the same cause. The Nooksack Basin does not have a water supply problem; the basin has a water management problem, and climate change is compounding the harm.

A comprehensive effort to pursue all possible solutions to this water management problem, the failures that led to it, and the crises it creates, must begin immediately.

Solutions to flooding and fish recovery include water storage, sediment management and levy and other waterway improvements. Only a comprehensive approach will address the breadth of the basin’s critical water management problems.

Water Storage

The Nooksack River Basin needs vastly improved water storage. The neighboring Skagit River system saw significant reductions in flooding severity in November’s event thanks to its water storage capacity in the Cascades.

The development of better water storage in our basin will not only lessen the devastation of floods. It will also save water during times like this past November when we have far too much, making it available to meet the needs of fish, farming and our communities during dry summer months.

Even Gov. Jay Inslee is advocating for the state to fund creation of more water storage, after Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson this past summer made a similar call. Watson pointed to how other basins with sufficient storage avoided the worst effects of this past summer’s drought.

Sediment management

Sediment in the Nooksack must be better managed. For decades, red tape and short-sighted political decisions have blocked efforts to responsibly manage the gravel that continues to build up and choke the river’s path.

Now is not the time to wait for more studies – gravel and sediment in the Nooksack can be responsibly managed in ways that minimize any harm to salmon, and at the same time help prevent the devastation and loss of life that a choked waterway can cause.

Waterway improvements

Maintaining and improving key levees – that have often been neglected – is crucial. These projects and other work on the Nooksack River waterway and its tributaries can help lessen floods and protect fish, such as improving habitat areas near streams and installing floodgates with new technology. Farmers are eager to help with these and other solutions.

Preserving farmland by protecting farming

Farmland is crucial to flood control and fish recovery. Farmers are ready and willing to be part of the solution, but they can’t if their land is converted to development due to a lack of secure access to water. That’s why the Department of Ecology’s plans to sue water rights holders in the Nooksack drainage are so harmful, and never more so than when farms and families are literally underwater.

A costly, time-consuming lawsuit done in the absence of any collaborative efforts will do nothing to solve the very real water management problems we face. And November tragically showed everyone just how much is at stake.

Our local farming community is poised to help continue leading the charge to protect families, fish and farms, not just for today, but for generations to come. But we cannot do it alone.

That’s why we’re calling for all corners of our local community to come together right away to pursue any and all possibilities to address the Nooksack Basin’s water management failures, and start protecting our shared future.


Want to support this effort to push for Whatcom water solutions now? Click here.