Several small town mayors in Whatcom County, as well as farmers in the Nooksack River Basin, are calling on the state to address their concerns about recent weather-related disasters before moving forward with action. in court over water rights in the aquifer.
But state Department of Ecology officials told the Bellingham Herald that decisions about water rights and measures to deal with extreme weather linked to climate change are separate matters and can be addressed. the same time.
A meeting with the mayors is scheduled soon, said an Ecology official.
In a letter dated Jan. 28 and released in a statement on Wednesday, Feb. 2, the mayors of Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack and Sumas asked Ecology to delay an “arbitration” process to decide who is entitled to water in the Nooksack River Basin, officially known as Water Resources Inventory Area 1.
Instead, the mayors – members of the Northern Whatcom County Small Town Caucus – want the ecology to focus on the record-breaking deadly heatwaves, drought and flooding that devastated the area last year.
“We write because we are concerned that your agencies’ attention may be focused on other priorities and issues of concern to you, as the crisis we face with water management in the river basin Nooksack goes virtually unnoticed. The extreme weather conditions of the past year have caused triple devastation to our local communities here in Whatcom County,” the letter reads.
An unseasonable heat wave in late June killed one person and devastated Whatcom County’s raspberry crop, and flooding in mid-November killed one person and caused an estimated $100 million in damage to communities along the Nooksack River.
“Instead of focusing on the entirely predictable twin problems of too much water in the river and streams at one time of the year, and too little at other times, your agencies have focused on issues that do not will do little or nothing to protect our salmon runs, protect water for our farms and citizens, and protect our communities from these recurring low instream flows and devastating floods,” the letter reads.
Mayor Mary Lou Steward of Blaine did not sign the letter, which was sent to the heads of the state departments of ecology, natural resources, fish and wildlife, and agriculture.
But agricultural organization Whatcom Family Farmers welcomed the mayors’ letter in a statement emailed to the Bellingham Herald.
“It is refreshing to see key leaders in our community campaign for a start towards real solutions,” said Whatcom Family Farmers.
In the arbitration process, a judge will decide how much water goes to tribes, farming interests, landowners in Whatcom County and how much goes for fish, especially the iconic Northwest salmon.
The state’s 2022-23 budget includes $1 million over two years to fund arbitration for the Nooksack and another area in eastern Washington. It also includes $250,000 for Whatcom County to carry out planning and engineering work and conduct what County Executive Satpal Sidhu calls a negotiated cooperative agreement process to distribute water rights.
Ecology meeting set
Meanwhile, Ecology management is planning a meeting with Whatcom mayors later this month, the agency’s communications manager, Jimmy Norris, said.
“We want to listen to their issues, what their concerns are,” Norris said.
But he noted that arbitrage and improving flood management can happen in tandem. Both issues are addressed by different programs within the agency.
“One doesn’t happen on top of the other,” Norris said. “They can both happen at the same time.”
Funding is not being diverted from flood management to arbitration, said Robin McPherson, head of arbitration assessment at Ecology.
“It’s important to remember that while flooding is such a pressing concern, it’s a separate matter from arbitration,” McPherson said.
Ecology is aware that farming communities are concerned about the consequences of arbitration, but this is the first “official notice” of concern Ecology has received from Whatcom Small Towns, she said. declared. The town of Bellingham has expressed support for the process, McPherson said.