Whatcom Farmers Proactively Address Water Management Issues
July 6, 2015
Whatcom County’s Family Farmers Proactively Helping Address Water Issues
By the Chairmen of the Whatcom Watershed Improvement Districts
We applaud the Bellingham Herald for helping raise awareness of Whatcom County’s water issues and appreciate the opportunity to participate in this community discussion. The recent heat and dry weather brings more attention to this important issue, while highlighting the importance of the abundant water we normally enjoy.
Whatcom County is a wonderful place to live, but also an incredibly productive place for growing food. Our longstanding leadership in dairy production continues even though the number of dairy farmers has greatly decreased and we have fewer cows than before. In the past thirty years or so, we have also become one of the world’s greatest producers of berries, particularly
raspberries and blueberries. Other crops such as seed potatoes also find this a perfect place to grow. Our normally mild temperatures, fertile soil and abundance of water contributes to making this a perfect place for growing the highest quality foods.
There are some voices in our community, and opponents of agriculture from outside our area, who wish to see an end to farming in Whatcom County. Some, including lawyers looking to sue, falsely accuse farmers of being major contributors to water quality problems. The anti-farming voices with their unjustified accusations are becoming increasingly strident in our community
and state which is why it is important for everyone to know the facts.
Here’s a brief summary of some key facts about our farmers and water:
- We have an abundant supply of water.
Whatcom County sits on a huge aquifer which, in normal circumstances, can provide sufficient water for farming, for fish, for environmental protection and for growing
communities. Farmers use mostly groundwater from this aquifer, and given our abundant average rainfall of 40 to 100 inches in our watershed, this aquifer is almost
always fully recharged every year. This abundance is challenged in the unusual conditions we face today. While most farmers seem to have adequate supply, some
farmers are struggling to protect their land and crops because of well depth, location or other source issues.
- We share this aquifer with Canada.
53% of our underground aquifer is in the lower Fraser Valley across the border -- an area of both intense agriculture and a rapidly growing urban population of approximately one million citizens between Langley and Abbotsford. Water does not respect the political boundaries we establish and any discussion of water quantity and quality needs to include the reality of this shared aquifer.
- Water availability is mostly about laws and regulations.
Farmers are concerned about securing access to sufficient water for the future not because of limited supply but because of outdated laws and regulations. Laws such as
the “use it or lose it” law which applies only to farmers, serves as an economic disincentive to farmers to conserve and reduce water use. This law needs to be changed. We believe there is both sufficient water and available water rights to meet the in-stream flow required for fish and supplies needed for farming. Unfortunately, the
current arrangement of legal water rights does not offer a secure future for farming and needs to addressed.
- Farmland is essential to maintaining clean, plentiful water.
While farmers use water during the summer for irrigation, the 100,000 plus acres of farmland provides a massive collection area and filter for our high levels of rain during the rest of the year. Those who seek to drive farmers out through lawsuits, taxes, or higher regulatory costs need to consider what will happen to those 100,000 acres if farmers are forced out. If the meadows and crops are replaced by asphalt and concrete, we will lose this incredibly valuable collection and filtering system. It’s one reason our local government leaders have made it clear that preserving this existing farmland is a
- Farmers are proactively and effectively addressing water concerns.
There are many users of water and many contributors to water quality concerns, but no one is taking these issues more seriously than farmers. And no one is acting more
proactively and positively than farmers. Already millions of dollars have been spent by farmers to reduce water use, increase stream flows, protect the environment and
improve water quality. And they’re not done yet. The six Watershed Improvement Districts established by farmers provide the basis for cooperative planning, project
development and engagement with other water users and claimants. Activities by these WIDs and individual farmers to decrease water use, increase efficiency and address water quality concerns provide strong evidence that farmers are not just concerned about growing food but also caring for the land and environment that everyone enjoys and farmers depend on.
Whatcom County is a wonderful place to live, raise a family, enjoy the environment and the great outdoors. One reason for this is because it is also a great place to raise great food. We strongly encourage those concerned about these issues to get the facts and become engaged
in this important discussion. The WatershedImprovement Districts and their coordinating body, the Ag Water Board, have produced a website filled with facts about farming in Whatcom County which can be found at agwaterboard.com/storymap. We believe the vast majority of members of our community would prefer to see cows, crops and farmland rather than the
alternative of more concrete, cul-de-sacs and strip malls. Preserving a future for sustainable farming in Whatcom County is an issue of great importance for all of us and your Whatcom family farmers are encouraging you to become informed and get involved.
Vern VandeGarde, Bertrand WID
Larry Stap, North Lynden WID
Rich Appel, Laurel WID
Ed Blok, South Lynden WID
Brad Rader, Sumas WID
Marty Maberry, Drayton WID
Scott Bedlington, Ag Water Board
Water Management Complexities Start in Canada
August 5, 2015
By Scott Bedlington, Marty Maberry and Ed Blok of the Ag Water Board and Watershed Improvement Districts
The sky is not falling when it comes to Whatcom County water. Yes, we are in a summer and year of unusual drought. This may even continue for some time. But the rains will return and when they do it is likely that we will face our more common problem with water: too much of a good thing. We’ll deal with flooded fields, roads and streets, maybe even homes.
Recent Herald guest editorials on water issues have painted a picture of very high water use, especially by farmers, and a limited, diminishing supply. This picture is needed to justify a call for metering and for a water tax aimed at our family farmers. While the intention may be honorable, the picture of our water use and supply is wrong. As is the call for a water tax.
When you look at how much water we actually have and how it is replenished you will quickly see that all the users of water touch only a very small percentage of available water. We share our water with our neighbors to the north. As a matter of fact, much of the shallow groundwater that feeds our wells flows south from across the border. Some near Sumas reverses course and flows back north but the majority flows south without even checking in with Customs. It’s a fact that a significant percentage of our groundwater originates in the fields, hills, streams, streets and parking lots from Langley to Abbotsford.
The aquifers, the vast underground reservoirs that hold our groundwater, are massive. The Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer is huge, one of the largest in the entire region. It covers an area of at least 77 square miles with about half in Canada and half in northern Whatcom County. This aquifer typically holds an estimated 257 billion gallons of water. Every drop withdrawn by the approximately 1 million users in Canada and far fewer users in Whatcom County, is replenished with the 32 to 60 inches of rain that fall each year in this area. As large as this aquifer is, it is fairly shallow. Other aquifers in northern Whatcom County are far deeper with much of their water also flowing from Canada.
That’s groundwater. What about surface water in our rivers and streams? Let’s just look at the Nooksack River. The water that flows down the river mostly comes from the snow in the Mount Baker area. Information available from the USGS indicates that the flow in the Nooksack River on average is about 2.5 billion gallons per day, or approaching 900 billion gallons per year.
How much do farmers use? Based on crops, acreage and irrigation needed farmers estimate use at about 15 billion gallons annually. If farmers drew all this water from the Nooksack it would amount to about 1.6 percent of the annual volume of water in the river. But, of course, they don’t draw it from the Nooksack. Less and less is taken from the river and farmers are working to end any stream withdrawals in favor of groundwater withdrawals. So, if they drew all their water from just the Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer, it would amount to less than 6 percent of the water held in just one aquifer. That is not counting the other deep aquifers nor the fact that rain normally recharges the aquifer annually with more water than has been withdrawn, including evaporation and plant use of water.
The sky may not be falling when it comes to the abundance of water. But, that does not mean there are not serious water management problems. Farmers and others involved in water issues for many years have struggled with water access, not because of limited water but because of outdated laws and a confusing water allocation system with large water rights assigned to a number of users which don’t need them while some farmers find it impossible to secure the legal rights they need to farm. There are water quality issues with higher than acceptable nitrates in some areas and fecal coliform counts that have resulted in shellfish bed closures. Then there are tribal treaty rights including the need for sufficient water for fish and the desire of all for habitat protection and restoration.
These are complex issues. They are made more complex because our water supply is shared with Canada. A couple of examples make that clear. Farmers have been working for years through Watershed Improvement Districts to address the water in streams needed to support fish. The Bertrand Watershed Improvement District, for example, has tested stream augmentation using our abundant groundwater to replenish flow in the Bertrand Creek during the late summer and early fall months when it is most needed. They have also implemented a program to encourage farmers to transfer their irrigation water rights from the stream to groundwater supply wells, again with the intent of improving flow in the stream. But, how do you solve the problem of sufficient flow when Canadian landowners are putting in small dams to stop the flow on their portion of the Bertrand Creek and other streams that originate in Canada?
Then there is the concern about water quality. Nitrates above the federal maximum contamination levels are found in over 20% of wells in some areas of northern Whatcom County as they have been since testing began. Whatcom County’s family dairy farmers have been working hard to reduce any contribution from manure. The Dairy Nutrient Management Act helps ensure manure is applied when the growing plants can properly absorb the nitrogen. But dairy, poultry and mushroom farms across the border have neither the regulations nor the proactive measures taken by our local farmers. Fecal coliform? Dairies have been getting the blame, unfairly. Finger pointing at manure lagoons ignores the fact that very little leaks from them, much less than from the 13,000 residential septic systems in our community. Water testing data shows where fecal coliform is coming from and after passage of the dairy regulations, contributions from manure are considerably lower than from other sources. Again, our shared water becomes an issue. When very high levels of fecal coliform streamed across the border into the Jackman Ditch in the Bertrand watershed in June, 2014, it made national news in Canada, but not a single mention in US or local news. Meanwhile, a Seattle TV station came to town in late 2014 and placed all the blame for shellfish bed closures on our family dairy farmers.
This is not to throw our northern neighbors under the bus. Our purpose here is to help those concerned understand that our water problems are not about limited supply. Metering, irrigation taxes and other “solutions” only detract from the real issues and the pursuit of real solutions. We applaud those, such as the Herald guest editorial writer, who show concern over these issues and we welcome all those interested to become better informed and support the efforts of farmers, tribal leaders, government officials in addressing the real problems. Whatcom family farmers firmly believe with appropriate water management it is possible to have the fish and habitat needed by the tribes to support their culture and traditional way of life. And that we can also supply the needs of our growing communities for clean water while still providing sufficient water helping ensure a secure future for our family farmers.