Planning for less water in Whatcom - Salish Current

Water for drinking is just one consideration, as planners consider how climate change and the forthcoming adjudication of water rights may limit use of water. (City of Bellingham video image)

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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.

All of us in Whatcom County will have less — perhaps much less — water for our homes, businesses and farms in the future. 

Two factors underlie this prediction: (1) climate change is dramatically reducing the amount of water in the Nooksack River basin during the summer, and (2) the forthcoming adjudication of water rights will further limit human use of water in favor of higher instream flows for fish.

As part of its response to these forces, the WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board is updating its five-year plan (2024–2028). WRIA, a wonky acronym, is Watershed Inventory Area, a classification system established by the state Department of Ecology; and WRIA 1 is the Nooksack basin.

Here are four critical issues that this new plan should address:

  1. Instream Flows: We need to agree on flows (cubic feet/second) sufficient to support healthy fish populations. These data, for various locations and times throughout the Nooksack basin, are required for adjudication and for balancing water supply and out-of-stream human use of water. Such minimum flows are a key part of the treaty rights that belong to Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe and are the most senior rights in the basin. 
  2. Water-Use Efficiency (WUE): Although WRIA 1 participants have conducted several studies of water supply and storage options, we have never examined the benefits and costs of WUE technologies, practices, projects, and programs. Since completion of the original 2005 watershed management plan, WUE has completely disappeared from the WRIA 1 agenda. Overall, WUE programs are likely much less expensive and more cost effective than most supply and storage options. In addition, WUE requires no regulatory approvals, can be targeted geographically where most needed, and can be quickly scaled up or down. 
  3. Value of Water: We need to determine what water is worth in WRIA 1, when, where and to whom. As examples, commercial users in Bellingham pay about $4,000/acre-foot, while farmers who self-supply probably pay less than $100/acre-foot. Some sense of the value of water is needed to decide how much to spend on supply, storage, and efficiency projects. A recent study on Water Storage Alternatives examined projects that ranged in cost from $140/acre-foot to $1,400/acre-foot. How can we decide which projects to pursue without understanding water’s value?
  4. Meter Agricultural Water Use: Agriculture is the dominant water use in WRIA 1 during the summer when streamflows are at their lowest. But we have no data on how much water these farms actually use. The available estimates are based on the Washington Irrigation Guide, which is decades old and out of date. We need to meter water use for at least a representative sample of farms. Although many farms are metered and report their water use to Ecology, those data are not available to the public and have never been analyzed. Without such data, we have no idea how effective irrigation WUE technologies and practices are, nor what effect irrigation water use has on streamflows.

If we act swiftly and decisively, we can ensure a future in which fish, farms, and people thrive. However, if we continue past patterns of ignoring data on actual water use, ignoring the potential benefits of efficiency, and conducting countless studies that never lead to action, we will face a very dry future with little water in our creeks and river and no fish. 

To comment on which strategies in the 2018-2023 work plan residents view as a priority, go to the WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board Work Plan Development Questionnaire and comment before Feb. 12.

— Contributed by Eric Hirst

Ed.: Potable water is a major concern in the San Juan Islands as well. Read “Islanders grapple with concerns over a finite resource: water,” Salish Current, Aug. 18, 2022.

The City of Bellingham’s treatment plant in Whatcom Falls Park is c​apable of producing 24 million gallons of drinking water per day. Learn more about your drinking waters journey from Lake Whatcom to your tap in a video from the Public Works department [1:33]:​

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