Some say NO. They say we must choose one or at most two of the three.

Some think that water is a limiting factor forcing us to adopt policies either harmful to restoring fish or harmful to maintaining viable farms and farmland. Some think we must adopt strong anti-growth policies to keep our population as it is.

Whatcom Family Farmers believe that we can have fish, farms and families. We believe we can do better at restoring our native fisheries, particularly the primary salmon species important to our native tribes, and maintain and improve the streams and habitat these fish need. We can do that while ensuring there is sufficient water for farming and for a steadily growing population. But, just because we can doesn’t mean it will be easy. It will take more than farmers, more than a village — our entire community must be involved.


Last year we went through a major drought and some say there is more to come. But rains have returned and once again filled our underground aquifers and streams to overflowing in some times and places. Our primary aquifer stores over a quarter trillion gallons of fresh water. A small amount is used but rains quickly refill it. But there are more and even larger aquifers in our county. The Nooksack river flows mostly unimpeded to the bay with most of its water coming from the snows collected in the Mount Baker area. Our many streams such as the Bertrand, the Fishtrap, Silver Creek, Dakota Creek flow mostly into our river, but some into saltwater such as Drayton Harbor near Blaine. Some of our water such as the Sumas River and that watershed flows north into Canada, but most of our groundwater originates in Canada in the Fraser river valley and flows south.

Double Ditch stream originates in Canada, travels through dairy country, enters Lynden and through the Fishtrap creek into the Nooksack river.


In the dry summer months, streams run low or even dry up. This is not new.

Water quality is a major concern. Farming has been a major contributor to bacteria that resulted in shellfish bed closures in the past. But regulations and responsible stewardship changed that. Now farmers are leaders in water protection.

This image of a native American salmon fishing was originally published in 1924 in The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis.

Public Domain, Library of Congress, wikimedia commons

There are several problems: seasonal flows and demands, water quality, tribal water rights and state water rights.

Seasonal flows and demands
Water in our aquifer, our massive underground storage reservoir, and in our river and streams runs strong in the wet, rainy winter, but less in summer. That, of course, has always been true but the coming of non-native people and farmers began to make the seasonal changes more pronounced. Drawing water from the river, streams and groundwater through wells whether for irrigation or to power the backyard slip-n-slide or to keep the golf greens green affects how much water is flowing. Fish need water in the streams and rivers to live, to travel to spawning grounds and to spawn the next generation.Because demand is highest when supply tends to be lowest some believe fish and farms and families are not compatible.

Water quality
Contaminated water hurts everyone. Public water systems treat water to ensure it is safe but for those who drink well water, contamination is an issue. It is also an issue for shellfish because they filter water to eat and contaminants collect quickly in them making them potentially harmful to eat.

There are two main issues of water quality in our community: nitrates and fecal coliform. Nitrates primarily affect well water quality while fecal coliform affects primarily shellfish.

Agriculture throughout all time has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest disrupters of the natural environment. It’s not easy growing the food seven billion people need without having an impact on the natural environment. There is no question that farming here as elsewhere has contributed to both nitrate and fecal coliform issues. We’ve had high nitrate levels in over 20% of our wells in northern Whatcom County for as long as they have been tested–over 40 years now similar to other farming areas.

Nitrogen is applied in fertilizer, both commercial and organic such as produced by cows. In the mid to late 1990s when the Lummi shellfish beds were closed due to fecal contamination, state investigators concluded that dairy farms were primarily to blame. Farms continue to be contributors, but are no longer the major contributors of fecal coliform affecting the current shellfish bed closures. Dairy farms became highly regulated through the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act and changed farm practices that were shown to be harmful. Regulations and responsible action by many farmers has worked. Water quality studies show fecal coliform contribution from dairy farms is now less than from other sources. While dairy farms and cows have decreased, the other sources have all increased and they do not have the same level of regulation, attention and action. These include residential septic systems, urban stormwater runoff, hobby farms, contamination from the many farms and homes in Canada and even our growing population of swans, geese and ducks!

​Farmers are committed to continuing the good work done in improving water quality. It’s one reason why they formed the Watershed Improvement Districts. But there is no single source of water contamination in our community. Again, it will take all involved working together to address the important issue of water pollution.

Tribal treaty rights
Our local tribes, the Lummi and Nooksack Nations, were the first Americans to settle in this land, coming not long after the glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago. Their tribal treaty rights were established in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. Farmers want our earliest friends and neighbors to have a healthy, thriving community that honors their values and traditions. Our laws have given the tribes specific rights. It is very clear that the tribes have full rights to water on their reservation lands. The state, the tribes, farmers and the community have a large stake in the question of tribal treaty rights applied to water. Everyone involved agrees that it is far better to work through these difficult issues in discussions, negotiations and signed agreements rather than through legal battles. Farmers are a willing and eager participant in these discussions that also need to involve our cities, County and the Public Utilities District.

State water rights
Our state has the legal authority to issue water permits to cities, counties, individuals and businesses including farmers. For many years this was relatively easy and nearly everyone needing water was issued a permit or right to withdraw water. About thirty years this became considerably more difficult because of the emergence of tribal claims on water, growing use of water by cities and farmers, and by science studies that linked withdrawals of groundwater to stream flows, called hydraulic continuity. In the intervening years, those seeking legal rights were told to apply while the state sorted out the difficult issues. That continues to this day.

​Farmers believe that it is very important that the issue of legal rights gets resolved. They feel vulnerable to the whims of politics, particularly when there are those who accuse farmers inappropriately of stealing water. But the issue of rights cannot be resolved without resolution of the conflicting claims on water. That’s why the best way to resolve this is by a negotiated agreement between all those involved.


Farmers are involved in investigating whether the Birch Bay-Blaine aquifer can help address long term water supply questions. This largely untapped underground supply is many times larger than the Sumas-Abbotsford aquifer that supplies most of our Whatcom county water.

Secure adequate long term supply.

Farm use of water is not likely to increase substantially because of conservation and the continuing loss of farms and farmland to development, but a growing population may require more water. To make certain there is enough water in streams for fish at times of lowest flow may mean we need to increase our summer supply. Our underground aquifer is already filled to overflowing when the rains come. The Nooksack river is one of the few major rivers in the state without any storage reservoir. Other deep aquifers in our county are now being studied with the possibility of transferring groundwater into streams at times when the streams most need it. We need to start seriously looking at the best, most efficient, least cost solution to long term water needs.
Farmers believe these are the key steps to ensuring there is water now and in the future for fish, farms and families:

Allow surface to groundwater conversion
Encourage conservation.
Improve water quality.
Secure adequate long term supply.
Increase flexibility in water rights.
Improve fish habitat and stocks through all available means.

Allow conversion to groundwater

Farmers now use mostly groundwater, using our massive and annually recharged aquifer, for irrigation. But there is still some withdrawal from the Nooksack and tributaries. Farmers would like to see tributary water withdrawals replaced by the right to use groundwater or mainstem withdrawals. This effort is hampered by existing rules and restrictions that, if removed, would substantially address instream flow concerns. Flexibility is needed to meet water resource needs for both farms and fish.

Encourage conservation.

Conservation is everyone’s business, particularly in the dry summer months. Farmers have done much to conserve water for irrigation greatly reducing need for irrigation water. But farmers face a dilemma. Because of the state’s outdated water laws, if a farmer, and only a farmer, conserves water he or she stands to lose the right to use that water in the future. This 1917 law helped make sure those who needed the water had it, but now it discourages conservation and needs to changed.

Improve water quality.

Farmers recognize they contribute to water quality problems and are committed to continuing improvement through new technology and management practices that have demonstrably improved quality. Cities, hobby farmers, septic system owners, golf course owners all have to show the same responsibility and commitment. We must also work with our Canadian neighbors to better understand their impact on water quality and encourage their efforts to reduce that impact. The first step here is to better understand today’s water contamination sources and solutions using best science and avoiding finger pointing.

The stream augmentation project of the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District is one example of the many water projects developed and led by farmers. It uses ground water from existing water rights to help improve stream flow in the critical summer months.

Increase flexibility in water rights.

As said earlier, there is sufficient water available and sufficient rights. But how they are assigned and to whom does not necessarily reflect today’s realities. There are many ways to address this including water banking which allows rights to be transferred by a farmer to where it is needed rather than tied to a specific piece of property. We must work with the state and all stakeholders to resolve these difficult issues through discussion, negotiation and a settlement agreement.

Improve fish habitat and stocks through all available means.

The underlying issue in all of this is fish and the tribal rights to have the fish they need to continue their culture, traditions and way of life. This goes beyond water. Farmers fully support identifying needed in-stream flows and helping make certain the flows are there. But we also recognize there are other issues involved in resource management including hatcheries as well as harvest methods and limits.

Farmers believe there are hatchery options, including a current proposal in the legislature, that will improve the food the native and target species of chinook and coho need without running into the Endangered Species Act issues of some hatcheries. We believe the tribes, farmers and the community need to come together using the best science to develop a strategy and program to address all aspects of fish including water, habitat and the best way to help recover the fish stocks so important to the tribes.

Where do we go from here?

Farmers believe the following steps are necessary to solve our long term water issues:

1. Build relationships of respect and trust, as we believe has already begun with the discussions going on between farmers and tribal members and leaders.

2. Continue discussions between farm and tribal leaders to better understand needs and preferred approaches.

3. Ask our government leaders to convene a Water Summit bringing together all stakeholders in a series of work sessions designed to produce a negotiated agreement.

4. Ask all stakeholder groups to communicate with their constituents the difficult issues to be resolved, the need for goodwill among the parties, and the clear understanding that in a negotiated settlement compromise is essential.

We need YOU to be part of the discussion. Please let us know your thoughts using this simple form, or please call Whatcom Family Farmers at 360-303-9123. You can always use the contact form to let us know your thoughts.