Many take for granted that we will always have access to water in Whatcom County. After all, we live where people believe “it rains all the time.”
What might come as a surprise is that Whatcom County has been in a drought for years. The rainfall measured from October through February of this year was 14.8 inches. Compared to this time last year of 20.72 inches. (Mittendorf, 2023) This is a drastic difference, and this number is estimated to continue to drop.
Climate scientists from the University of Washington claim that we should not yet worry about water availability in the Nooksack Basin. This, however, does not address the fact that, as of the beginning of 2023, the process of establishing water rights in Whatcom County has begun. Brought to Whatcom County by the Department of Ecology and backed by local Tribal governments, every household drawing water through private wells will be notified by mail that despite having what they believe to be established rights, all people will now need to file a water claim establishing their rights. (Department of Ecology, 2023) Those who source their water from a PUD or public water system will not need to file a claim.
With some water rights documents dating back 100 years, we would assume that establishing water rights through the adjudication process would be smooth. In reality, it is anything but. To complicate this matter, the issue was consistently tabled despite the city council being aware of the conflict regarding establishing water rights decades ago. At the most recent meeting held to discuss the water rights claim issue, 42nd District Sen. Sharon Shewmake allowed that while adjudication needs to be addressed, she also stated, “I think adjudication is important, but I also think making sure that adjudication isn’t a big scary letter saying, ‘you’re part of a lawsuit’ that people don’t understand … could be a real innovation and a real benefit to our community.” (Lerner, Cascadia Daily News, 2023, para.4) After this statement and a presentation from the Department of Ecology, the council voted to “discuss this issue at a later date.” (Lerner, Cascadia Daily News, 2023)
Due to the lack of attention to the demand that adjudication be addressed, the state of Washington has now requested 2.7 million dollars to handle the water adjudication process in Whatcom County. A proposed water solutions table (a grant agreement between the Department of Ecology and the City Council) allocates $250,000 to create a collaborative process. This process seeks to include all the shareholders affected by the claim process. While important, with the adjudication claim process already passed into law, also very late in the game.
70% of summer water allocations stem from agriculture, so clearly, these stakeholders have the most to lose. These stakeholders will be the most likely to use the law to fight for their right to continue to use water as they have. They are also more likely to have long-time uninterrupted, established rights. If you built your house recently, say in the past ten years, you might have a real fight to keep your current water rights. If this same household has been a hobby farm and needed water for their animals, that water is no longer guaranteed. If a home were not using its water rights for any reason in history, water rights would terminate after five years. Since this termination needs to be self-reported by the homeowner at the claim filing, anyone can turn another in should they choose.
Washington State Representative Joe Timmons of Bellingham has proposed House Bill 1792 to examine timelines and procedures for the adjudication process. (Lerner, Cascadia Daily News, 2023) The bill has unanimous support in the House and Senate, local and tribal governments, and the Whatcom Public Utility District. This bill mainly aims to explain and streamline the water claim process for Whatcom County residents.
Whatcom County has been a target for decades for this process. Despite drawing water from Lake Whatcom for city residents, we do not have an established reservoir system for county residents. This similarly occurred in Yakima, and the water battle lasted over thirty years before the process was finally concluded.
Whatcom County is not immune from the effects of climate change and population demands. Water is not guaranteed, and drought and fire risks have increased exponentially, yet very little information has been shared with the public regarding what we can expect in the coming decades. For more information about these issues, I strongly encourage you to read the Climate Action Plan written in 2009 and extensively updated in 2020 by climate scientists at the University of Washington. Also, specific to Whatcom County, I recommend reading the 2020 Whatcom County Climate Science Summary. To understand the severity of the ongoing drought in Whatcom County, please visit Drought Conditions for Whatcom County. This current chart is maintained and compiled by the National Integrated Drought Information System under the authority of NOAA.
The time to address water rights, fire danger, drought, and the ongoing effects of our ever-increasing population in Whatcom County is now. With information, education, and an understanding of how these issues will affect you as a stakeholder, we can move forward in a cooperative manner that doesn’t create anger, frustration, or finger-pointing. Reading the publications I linked above and asking questions in an informed and positive way will benefit all parties.
We are in this together; let us all do our best to solve these critical climate issues for the betterment of all Whatcom County residents, not just some.
Department of Ecology. (2023). Adjudication of WRIA 1 (Nooksack). Retrieved from Department of Ecology: https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Water-supply/Water-rights/Adjudications/Nooksack#
Hirst, E. (2017, December). Whatcom Watch. Retrieved from Whatcom Water Use — With and Without Permission: https://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/whatcom-water-use-with-and-without-permission/
Lerner, J. (2023, January 25). Cascadia Daily News. Retrieved from Water rights battle coming to Whatcom County: https://www.cascadiadaily.com/news/2023/jan/25/water-rights-battle-coming-to-whatcom-county/
Lerner, J. (2023, May 2). Cascadia Daily News. Retrieved from Legislature unanimously passes Nooksack adjudication bill: https://www.cascadiadaily.com/news/2023/may/02/legislature-unanimously-passes-nooksack-adjudication-bill/
Mittendorf, R. (2023, March 19). Snowpack and rainfall are below normal for Whatcom County. Is drought likely? The Bellingham Herald.
NOAA. (2023). NOAA NIDIS (National Integrated Drought Information System). Retrieved from Drought Conditions for Whatcom County: https://www.drought.gov/states/Washington/county/Whatcom
SCHWARTZ, R. (2022, November 1). County executive proposes tax hikes in new budget. Cascadia Daily News. Retrieved July 6, 2023, from https://www.cascadiadaily.com/news/2022/nov/01/county-executive-proposes-tax-hikes-in-new-budget/
University of Washington. (2020). University of Washington. Retrieved from UW Climate Action Plan (CAP): UW Climate Action Plan (CAP)
Whatcom County Washington. (2020, January). Whatcom County Climate Action Plan: Summary of Observed Trends and Projected Climate Change Impacts. Retrieved from Whatcom County Washington: https://www.whatcomcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/53837/Whatcom-County-Climate-Science-Summary-2020