The Whatcom County Council this week authorized a grant agreement with the Department of Ecology to develop a collaborative process towards solutions for water availability in the Nooksack River basin.
The $250,000 grant, approved two legislative sessions ago, will provide for a process called the Solutions Table to run parallel with the water allocation adjudication process now underway in the basin.
The Solutions Table is intended to provide a space for collaborative decision-making to remediate the ongoing issues of declining fish population, environmental health, water flow and temperature, and the farming community’s needs for irrigation. (See “Floods, fish and farming intersect in Nooksack Basin’s complex challenge,” Salish Current, Feb. 17, 2022)
Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Ag Water Board of Whatcom County, said there is hope this process will bring all parties to the conversation and that they will move towards a more holistic approach in finding solutions.
“We think that’s the only way we’re going to have long-term solutions to the natural resource issue,” Bierlink said. “The point of a table, the point of a discussion is that we all are willing to do something, and also to get something that meets some of our needs and other people’s needs; that’s the idea for the Solutions Table.”
Adjudication alone not the answer
Jed Holmes, community outreach facilitator for the Whatcom County executive, acknowledged that adjudication alone would not solve the issues at hand. Concerning fish population for example, he said, “there are various projects that could be undertaken to significantly improve the conditions for fish in addition to this legal process.”
“In parallel, our farmers need to have water security, and there are potential projects which can provide this while also supporting salmon recovery,” Holmes said. “Of course, all of this requires significant investments, and investments on this scale will only be possible if we bring all parties to the table and agree on broad array of solutions which present win-win outcomes for everyone involved.”
The state grant is not the only funding available for this process, said Holmes. The county also set aside half a million dollars last year to support and facilitate this technical and collaborative effort.
“The Solutions Table is envisioned as the collaborative place that creates opportunity for the larger, negotiated solutions that help address some of the challenges for which adjudication may be able to provide a legally binding structure,” Holmes said.
Bierlink said the Ag Water Board has “generated a list of projects that would be helpful for farmers, fish and everyone else.” He said they would like to bring those projects to the Solutions Table.
“We have sturdy detailed proposals and we’re hoping that other people bring theirs,” Bierlink said.
Defining the scope
Holmes said ground is being laid for a Solutions Table charter, which would define the scope, objectives and participants.
On April 13, the Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 1 Management Team was presented with a Draft Charter for the Solutions Table written by Cascadia Policy Solutions, an environmental policy consultant firm commissioned by Whatcom County.
“They are going to be considering this proposal,” Bierlink said. “Our hope is that it gets adopted and not only adopted but put into place so that there is a mechanism to start doing the logistics.”
The draft will be reviewed on April 28 by the Watershed Management Board, which is comprised of representatives from Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe, Whatcom County, municipalities, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Public Utility District.
Representatives for the Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Tribe had not responded to requests for comments from Salish Current as of publication time.
Eric Hirst, board member for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said he hopes this draft will be approved.
“I think the charter makes a lot of sense; it’s a really good starting point,” Hirst said. “I just don’t think it’s worth whatever it’s costing the county to do it. I think that money could have been much better spent on technical studies.”
Urgent reality: climate change
The reality of environmental issues affecting the Nooksack River basin is already taking a noticeable toll on the ecosystem. Hirst said he hopes concerned rights holders and stakeholders will engage in this collaborative effort for climate remediation.
“What we’ve learned in the last few years is that the effects of climate change are more severe than we thought they were and they’re occurring more rapidly,” Hirst said.
Along with resolving ongoing water level problems, Hirst said an emphasis on water use efficiency will be crucial to respond to the issues in the area. In his career working with the energy sector, Hirst helped develop Integrated Resource Planning, a methodology to do long-range planning to match growing demands for electricity with its supply.
“People talk about solutions. They almost always talk about increasing water supply or storage, they never talk about water use efficiency,” Hirst said. “Initially, in the early ’70s, there was a lot of hostility and skepticism to energy efficiency but we’ve seen over the past several decades that it really works.”
Hirst said he wishes people in Whatcom County would do a study of the opportunities and the costs for improving efficiency and hopes the Solutions Table will bring that out.
With the legal process of adjudication in the works, the Solutions Table offers hope for agreement for projects that could improve the conditions impacting the watershed, fish populations and the viability of farming in Whatcom County.
— Reported by Clifford Heberden
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