August 4, 2022
Collaborate, adjudicate to settle Nooksack water issues
Eric Hirst

Simultaneous decline of summer streamflow levels and growing need for irrigation in the Nooksack Basin are worsening already poor conditions for salmon and other wildlife throughout the watershed. (Image courtesy Eric Hirst)

August 4, 2022
Collaborate, adjudicate to settle Nooksack water issues
Eric Hirst

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Summer streamflows throughout the Nooksack River basin have been declining for decades, and the decline is getting worse (Fig. 1). At the same time that water supplies are dropping, the need for irrigation water is growing as summers get hotter and rainfall diminishes.

These simultaneous adverse trends worsen the already poor conditions for salmon and other wildlife throughout the Nooksack watershed. Indeed, the minimum streamflow levels set by the state Department of Ecology in 1985 are often not met during the summer months and, as seen in the graph, the situation is getting worse.

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on the Nooksack River in Ferndale, a widely used measure of flows in the river, show a downward trend line reflecting decreasing streamflow.

One important contributor to this dire situation is unpermitted (i.e., illegal) water use. Ecology contends that as much as half of the agricultural water use in Whatcom County lacks its authorization. That is why Ecology is in the midst of a pre-adjudication process, with adjudication set to begin in summer 2023. Adjudication is a legal process that will clearly establish who has the right to use water, when, where and for what purpose, which is an essential prerequisite to reduce our worsening water supply/demand imbalance. Absent a firm understanding of who has what water rights, no trades, sales, leases or other deals can be made. Also, during dry spells, unauthorized water use takes water from those with senior water rights.

Farmers, understandably, oppose adjudication because they believe the end result will be less water for their operations. But that need not be. Farmers have several ways to better manage their water use, including:

  • Meter at least some of their water use to determine how much water they use as a function of crop type, soil type, month, and equipment type and scheduling practice
  • Investigate, purchase and install more efficient irrigation equipment, e.g., replace big gun systems with boom carts
  • Investigate and adopt water-use efficiency practices, including improved irrigation scheduling and maintenance procedures
  • Work with the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and Ecology to eliminate relinquishment (which requires Ecology to take back unused water rights, but which Ecology almost never enforces) from state water law
  • Switch to crops that are less water-intensive
  • Increase soil organic matter so that the soil can retain more moisture
  • Deploy new technologies to better manage water use (satellite imagery, drones, soil-moisture sensors)
  • Fallow land with poor quality soils.

Farmers favor collaborative discussions to resolve our local water issues. Unfortunately, experience during the past two decades shows that such negotiations don’t work unless the force of law (adjudication in this case) requires all the parties to negotiate in good faith. That is, without the incentive (or threat, depending on your perspective) of adjudication, it is too easy for groups to walk away from the negotiating table when the going gets tough. 

Negotiations conducted within the context of adjudication can deal with issues related to water supply, demand, quality and habitat and resolve long-standing water issues throughout the Nooksack River basin.

Contributed by Eric Hirst

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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