Candidates talk water as Whatcom wells run dry - Salish Current
September 8, 2023
Candidates talk water as Whatcom wells run dry
Kai Uyehara
Waterlines, sandbars and a substantial heap of muddy driftwood logs tell a story of much higher flows under the Main Street bridge in Ferndale than after this year’s unusually dry summer. The issue of water rights in the Nooksack Basin is front and center for county candidates. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2023)
September 8, 2023
Candidates talk water as Whatcom wells run dry
Kai Uyehara


A drought emergency was declared in Whatcom County by the state Department of Ecology in late July after abnormally low rainfall, rising temperatures, early snowmelt and low streamflows left 300 households in the Nooksack watershed without water as three public water systems ran dry. 

The progressive drama of water availability in the watershed has strained relationships between farmers who need water for crops and local tribes protecting in-stream flows to sustain salmon runs. 

The 2020 Whatcom County Climate Action Plan projected that summer minimum streamflow in the Nooksack River will decrease by 27% by the 2080s, and summertime stream temperatures will increase beyond the thermal tolerance of most fish.

Mountains draining into Puget Sound are projected to have 29% less snowpack by the 2040s, and the average annual temperatures in Puget Sound are projected to increase by 4.2 F to 5.5 F by the 2050s.

The Nooksack watershed and therefore Whatcom County leaders face lower streamflows, higher stream temperatures, less snow runoff and higher temperatures. Water is and will be a campaign issue in the Nov. 7 general election. 

While adjudication — the legal process of determining who has how much right to how much water in the basin — will take years, Whatcom County executive and county council at-large candidates suggest a range of solutions to the water supply issue. 


One path candidates see is finding ways for farmers to use water more efficiently — also a recommendation of retired energy policy analyst Eric Hirst, a co-plaintiff in the so-called “Hirst decision” of 2016 requiring the County to make an independent decision about legal water availability. [Ed.: Eric Hirst is a member of the Salish Current board of directors.]

Incumbent Whatcom County executive Satpal Sidhu commended the use of drip irrigation by county berry farmers and strategic crop rotation that pairs the highs and lows of water availability in the county with crops that have corresponding hydration needs.

Dan Purdy, who is running against Sidhu for county executive, wants to lean on other existing agricultural technology like micro-irrigation that delivers water directly to the root of a plant.

“We can help to encourage folks to use water in different ways,” said county council at-large candidate Jon Scanlon, “and I think it doesn’t necessarily have to be a heavy-handed approach, but I think a lot of it can be through education.” Scanlon suggested conservation tactics for homeowners and commercial landowners like planting native plants and not watering lawns.

Hannah Ordos, also a candidate for the county council at-large position, thinks the county’s Watershed Management Project’s general efforts towards conserving water quantity and protecting fish habitat are “adequate,” and she would “avoid expensive time-consuming assessments that offer little benefit or outcomes to meeting the project goals.”


Other ideas involve engineering solutions to help manage the flow.

“One of the solutions proposed by the tribes has been in (discussion) since 2015,” Sidhu said. “It takes four hours for all the rain and snowmelt to enter the ocean, so we have a very unique situation … a mile before the ocean, let’s build a pipeline all the way to northeast of Lynden and pump the water and put it back into the river — now the fish will see twice as much water.”

“We have a problem only in the four months of the year, that’s when the farmers need water, that’s when fish need water and that’s when rain is not happening,” Sidhu said. “If we are able to capture that water during the other five to eight months of the year [we can] use that water in those four months of the year when there’s water shortage or water demand is high.”

Sidhu said he would support a pipeline between wells to create a common well to reduce demand on the river. He also considers the possibility of drawing from an aquifer below Whatcom County that runs up to the Fraser River in times of need instead of using river water. He would ensure there are no wells within a half mile or mile of the river so they will not inadvertently drain its resources. 

“As an executive, I need to know what resources I have both above and below the crust and that’s going to impact what kind of industries we would want to invest in and grow,” Purdy said, also expressing interest in drawing from aquifer groundwater. 

“I think that up around the North Fork area, maybe around the small city of Everson, there might be the opportunity for the government to look at some land up there and construct reservoirs on large tracts of land,” Purdy said. “You can mitigate the draw on usage during certain time periods, and so maybe that’s something that we could do with the farmers as well. Once we have these reservoirs that are built, we can have allocations and draws from that.”

Purdy would also like to look into the feasibility of drawing water from the Fraser River as a potential international resource. 

The health of chinook salmon runs is one of the many variables in managing the Nooksack River ecosystem. (Photo by Roger Tabor, USFWS-Pacific Region, via Flickr)

Scanlon preferred an ecosystem management approach. “I definitely support leaning more into restoring biodiversity and using natural ecological processes,” Scanlon said. “If we can continue to increase tree canopy within the (Nooksack) watershed, that’ll be so helpful for retaining water in making sure that you’ve got cold, clear creeks and forks of the river to help out salmon in spawning season.”

Scanlon also wanted to partner with state and federal partners on forest management practices to employ selective thinning instead of clear cutting to maintain that healthy tree canopy.

Keep talking

All the candidates agreed that the major charge of being a Whatcom County official is actualizing solutions to water use, availability and rights issues by facilitating conversations and agreements between farmers, homeowners, municipalities, and sovereign Indigenous tribes. 

Ecology has been preparing a water rights adjudication process to confirm who has the right to use water, how much, where they can use it, and when. The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe [which did not respond to requests for comments] are senior water rights holders and reserve rights for sufficient instream flows to support salmon and other wildlife, and on-reservation water under the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott

Sidhu supports letting the adjudication happen as-is in support of the tribes and “because we do need an inventory,” he said. “But adjudication alone is not a solution.”

Sidhu has been working to convene tribes, farmers and involved stakeholders at a “water solutions table.” 

“The county executive is striving to create a collaborative water use agreement,” Sidhu said. “The adjudication doesn’t care about water quality. Even drinking water, even farm water. How do we bring the fish habitat?”

“What it takes is to persuade people of these solutions in front of them rather than butting heads with each other — there are possible solutions with our current resources,” Sidhu said. “I want to be the facilitator.”

“As much as I would have control over some type of adjudication process, I would be in support of continuing the conversation,” Purdy said. “There’s a time for collaboration and there’s a time for understanding, but then there’s also a time to make sure that we’re doing what’s right by the people that I represent.”

“We have made some good progress surrounding discussions of practical ways, technical ways that we can fix some of our water issues,” said Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farms. “But the policy side of it has really been very slow to develop. We’ve been disappointed overall in the lack of progress there.”

Ag Water Board Executive Director Henry Bierlink said his organization “would like to see county officials embrace [a federal settlement process] and advocate for it and predominantly helping the tribes to see this as a better way to do it. We see that as more holistic, addressing a lot more issues, of land use, flooding, where the adjudication is very strictly just a look at who has the most senior rights.”

Likkel observed that while working relationships are “good … we just can’t seem to get over the hump to be able to engage in something that really produces results. Firm leadership from the County, be it the executive or the county council seems to be a pretty crucial element.”

Scanlon was also intentional about equity in water rights settlement. 

Steensma cattle grazing
Whatcom farmers have modified practices with climate change: with over 100,000 acres in agriculture, the issue of water availability is significant. (Steensma Dairy courtesy photo)

“Something I would think about is whose voices are being heard in conversation and making sure that people who are impacted by the policy decisions are in the rooms and have a voice in those discussions,” Scanlon said. “I’ve reached out to a lot of leaders in our community over the course of my campaign and will continue to do so … but I still believe that the best way forward is through the adjudication process.”

Ordos wants to support stakeholders as they navigate the complicated adjudication process by advocating for their needs, education and notifying them throughout the process and allocating funds to serve community members well. 

“The best answers will come from people who are impacted,” Scanlon said. “Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe know what’s best for them when it comes to the impact on their tribal nations. 

Farmers know what is best for them when it comes to adapting to climate change in the future.”

When wells runs dry

Some of the challenges of less water in the valley can be met with more efficient use and technology. But protecting salmon runs, watering farm crops and serving a growing population with require costly engineering solutions that will be a public policy decision.

Pumping water upstream, drilling into the aquifer, building water storage reservoirs and tapping the Fraser River may seem visionary now but consider how the state of Arizona proposes to meet its water needs by constructing a massive desalinization plant drawing water from the 
Sea of Cortez and piping it 200 miles north.

The 300 Whatcom County households whose wells ran dry got their wells filled by their water systems which hauled water or bought water. They paid higher water bills. And next year is another year.

A workshop on preparing for adjudication will be held at part of Whatcom Water Weeks on Sept. 13, 4:30–6:30 p.m. at the Pioneer Pavilion Community Center, 2007 Cherry Street, Ferndale. Attendees will receive an overview of water right basics, a checklist of documents and evidence that can be gathered to better document water rights and water use, and will identify potential complications that can be addressed even before the adjudication is filed. Register here.

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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