Countering Ecology’s focus on adjudication in Whatcom, leaders in the Yakima Integrated Water Plan explain cooperation and trust are essential to resolving water issues and show how litigation “stymied” progress on solving Yakima Basin issues for decades

(LYNDEN, Wash.) The State Department of Ecology sponsored a “Solutions Showcase” on October 27 to support the state’s plan to sue all water rights holders in Whatcom County in a legal action called adjudication. Previously, such an adjudication was pursued in the Yakima Basin. A 40-year-long court case was resolved through a settlement, initiated by the Roza  Irrigation District director approaching the Yakama Nation directly.

Ecology’s Water Resources Program Manager Mary Verner in the introduction restated Ecology’s commitment to file adjudication in the Nooksack basin in 2023 while stating that the state supports negotiations and saw these as compatible with litigation. This position was undermined by all experts presenting and especially by a panelist who explained how litigation for decades prevented the direct exchange between parties needed for a successful resolution. 

Urban Eberhart, Director of the Kittitas Reclamation District, said the litigation prevented key parties from talking with each other and building relationships. “… [ When ] we were mired in the adjudication process we weren’t even allowed to have those conversations,” Eberhart said, concluding that it “stymied” the creativity needed to find solutions.  

Panelists speaking during the forum exposed the deep flaws in the state’s courts-first approach to Whatcom’s water crisis. Yakama Nation representative Danielle Squeochs agreed with farm representatives that building trust and relationships outside of legal action was the key to resolving the difficult issues. “We are in this together because we have seen what litigation can bring,” the hydrogeologist said. Explaining that Yakima’s adjudication did not include groundwater, she expressed hope that any remaining issues will be able to avoid the lengthy, expensive legal process. 

Ecology intends to include groundwater in the Nooksack adjudication despite the significant additional complications this represents. Merle Jefferson, Lummi Nation Natural Resources Director, commented on the Showcase expressing strong agreement for the need to build trust and collaborate.

“What became painfully obvious was that basin-wide litigation is not the approach to reach solutions,” said Marty Maberry, Whatcom berry grower and Drayton Watershed Improvement District board member. Key leaders from the diverse groups involved in creating the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a collaborative agreement ending that basin’s decades of legal conflict over water, spoke to the deadlock and frustration of the litigatory approach Ecology began there in the 1970s. The state agency is planning to use the same ineffective litigatory process, called a water rights adjudication, here in the Nooksack basin. 

As community opposition to adjudication gains momentum in Whatcom County, Ecology responded by hosting the “Solutions Showcase.” Fred Likkel, Executive Director of Whatcom Family Farmers noted that instead of assuaging fears about water rights adjudication, the expert speakers brought together by Ecology explained how adjudication doomed their community to decades of costly legal conflict before the key leaders independently agreed to collaborate and create the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

The Yakima basin leaders’ success through collaboration was recently highlighted in The New York Times.

Whatcom Family Farmers is offering an edited version of the Solutions Showcase on video here.