Clock starts on Nooksack basin water rights inventory; stakeholders yet to discuss solutions - Salish Current
July 9, 2021
Clock starts on Nooksack basin water rights inventory; stakeholders yet to discuss solutions
Mike Sato

A turbid stretch of the approximately 75-mile-long Nooksack River flows along the southern edge of Lynden. A process to establish water rights among various users in the river’s 786-square-mile basin began on July 1.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2021
July 9, 2021
Clock starts on Nooksack basin water rights inventory; stakeholders yet to discuss solutions
Mike Sato


Weeks of sparse rainfall and a historic heat wave marked the end of June — and the start of a process to establish water rights among various users in Whatcom County’s Nooksack River basin.

While the process begins, climate change isn’t waiting.

The state’s Department of Ecology formally began a two-year study on July 1 to compile all water uses and rights and claims to water in the basin. The pre-adjudication study will also document how much water is needed for fish. By the end of the pre-adjudication study, Ecology anticipates having a full picture of how much water is needed for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses and flows for fish in the basin. With that inventory information, the adjudication court would formally establish the rights and uses of all water claims in the basin.

The state legislature this year appropriated $1 million for the state’s two-year study and $250,000 to Whatcom County to conduct a parallel stakeholder process to bring water claimants and users together to address the multiple water needs of fish, habitat, agriculture and residents in the basin.

It’s another step aimed at resolving what seems an intractable problem since 1985 when seasonal water shortages necessitated the state instituting stream flow rights and rules. Despite legal action, local efforts failed to produce basin water use plans, resulting in the state taking over planning and moving to the legal action of adjudication to permanently determine who among the estimated 5,400 claimants have the right to use the water of the Nooksack Basin, how much they may use and when.

Trust factor

Whatcom County, however, doesn’t have an agreement regarding its stakeholder process in place with Ecology so hasn’t yet received the appropriation.

“There needs to be trust in this process and we’re at the very beginning,” said Jed Holmes, community outreach facilitator in county executive Satpal Sidhu’s office. Holmes said the county has been identifying and talking to stakeholders, developing meeting logistics and identifying facilitation needs. “But everyone has to be willing to come together to work on solutions.”

Like many stakeholders on all sides of the local water issue, Holmes doesn’t think the adjudication process itself will solve contending water needs in the basin. “Adjudication may be legally binding,” he said, “but it’s not the solution to having fish in the river and water for farming. The stakeholder process is to work for solutions by increasing stream flows, improving habitats and providing water security.”

However, according to Merle Jefferson, natural resources director of the Lummi Nation, “We can’t have any discussion until we have the data, until we know what we are talking about.” 

The Lummi and Nooksack Tribes have senior water rights on the river basin resources. Jefferson made clear that there can be no discussion until Ecology completes its pre-adjudication research and study.

Without the stakeholder participation of the tribes, the stakeholder process at least for now appears at a standstill.

‘Short window’

“Maybe it’s not so much what one is giving up but what one wants to achieve,” said Holmes. “The win/win would be to get fish back and achieve water security.”

Henry Bierlink, administrator of the Ag Water Board, says farmers hope the stakeholder discussions start soon and that the discussions will show it’s not necessary to go through “the long, expensive and painful process of adjudication to develop accountable agreements to manage our water resources that respect tribal fishing concerns and the needs of out-of-stream users.”

“Farmers are ready,” said Bierlink. “We support the [county] executive in setting the table for real and productive discussions.”

Bierlink also said the solutions that come out of the stakeholder process may show there is no need for the legislature funding the adjudication process in the next biennium.

 “Climate change waits for nobody,” said Eric Hirst who with others prevailed in the eponymous court decisionthat forced the county and subsequently the state to address the basin’s water resource issue. Summer streamflows are declining, irrigation demand is increasing. Glaciers are shrinking, more rain less snow is falling, snow is melting earlier bringing spring floods and summer droughts. 

“We have a short window to address and resolve local water problems,” Hirst said. “Someone — the county, the Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe, the farmers — has to come forward with a plan to provide the structure and content for discussion.”

The Department of Ecology anticipates their adjudication team to be fully functional by the end of summer and will update stakeholders and the public.

— Reported by Mike Sato

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