Thursday, May 2, 2013

Certainty About Water Supply

This blog will circle back to water supply, I promise.  But first, a confession:

I think that New York Times columnist Gail Collins is funny.

I admit this, publicly, despite the fact that many in Whatcom County view any connection with any geographic location outside of Whatcom County (especially the east coast) to be a terminal disqualification for expressing an opinion on any local issue.   Those who have been tainted by outside thinking – heck, by having breathed the air of elsewhere –should just shut up and let the folks with their great-great-grandpappy’s homestead certificates run County affairs.

Or so folks often say, during County Council meetings and especially during County elections.  Just you watch and listen over the course of the next few months.

(These are the same folks, by the way, who will be insisting that the County must plan for an enormous influx of population over the next 20 years.  Once houses have been built, profits have been realized, and those new homebuyers have moved in, they should just shut up and be ignored for several generations, apparently.)

Anyway, Gail Collins’ most recent column is an exposé of the sheer nuttiness of Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s former Tea Party governor and current candidate.  You’ll recall that ex-Governor Sanford coined the term “hiking the Appalachian trail” when he met “jetting off to South America to meet up with his mistress.”

What impressed me most about this column, though, was the first comment in the “Reader’s Picks” section.  One Bill Appledorf asked:

Isn't there anyone, in a country of more than 300 million people, who understands economics, believes in science, and wants to be part of government because s/he wants to improve the lot of everyday American citizens?

Hmmm.  A good question.

Mr. Appledorf concluded:

Problems need to be solved. Schools, roads, bridges, windmills need to be built. Sane people interested in helping others it seems to me might find this sort of thing challenging and rewarding -- not monetarily rewarding, but emotionally and personally rewarding, the feeling of having contributed something worthwhile to society.

What, I asked myself, is wrong with this Mr. Appledorf?  Isn’t he aware that voters don’t want the kind of person who believes that government exists to solve problems and help people?  American voters want people who will tear down government in order to prove that government doesn’t work!

And then I looked again.  Mr. Appledorf is not from Whatcom County.  

He’s from British Columbia. 

So close, yet it might as well be another country.  Canadians, like all other people who aren’t from here, really need to learn how to be seen (handing over cash while buying our real estate and milk) but not heard.

Still, I can’t help but think about the type of government that Mr. Appledorf envisions:  one that addresses problems.  Collective action problems.  The type of problems that individuals cannot solve on their own.

Water supply, for example.

On May 30th-31st, the WRIA Joint Board is sponsoring a symposium called “Water Supply:  Searching for Certainty in Uncertain Times.”  Along with a cast of thousands, I’ve been asked to participate in a panel at the end of the first day.  We have all been asked to address the following questions:

1. From your perspective, what is the uncertainty that your interest faces with today's water supply or stream flow status?

2. Why is it important to address the challenges associated with that uncertainty?

3. What do you see as a solution for certainty for water now and in the future?

And here’s my problem. For the life of me, I don’t think that there’s any “uncertainty” about water supply, from the point of view of my “interest.”

My “interest,” according to the program, is “land use.”  This is because, along with Futurewise, my clients and I recently challenged the County’s failure to even consider, much less protect, water quality and quantity when it revised the Rural Element of its comprehensive plan.  The Growth Management Hearings Board heard arguments on April 26th, and it should issue a decision sometime in June.

Regardless of what the Hearings Board decides, though, I don’t see any uncertainty about how Whatcom County will address water supply issues in its land use planning.  It will continue to do exactly what it’s been doing over the past 13 years.

Whatcom County adopted a Water Resources Plan in 1999 and a Coordinated Water Supply Plan “update” in 2000. 

Since then?  Nothing. 

The County’s position is that it doesn’t have any obligation to plan, or adopt development regulations, to protect water supply so long as the County’s regulations aren’t in actual conflict with the Department of Ecology’s rules.  In 1985, the Department of Ecology adopted rules stating that most of the watersheds in the County are closed to surface water withdrawals during all or part of the year.

The County’s population in 1985 was somewhere between 107,000 and 128,000 (those are the 1980 and 1990 census figures).  Now the population is 205,000.  Not quite double, but somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 people more than in 1985.  Times have changed since “Like a Virgin” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” were the top songs.

Times have changed, and not for the better, when it comes to water supply. We still have closed watersheds -- and we have thousands of people moving into those closed watersheds and digging wells there. Farm Friends has estimated that as many as ¾ of Whatcom County farmers are now farming without legal water rights.  We have an aquifer in which 70% of tested wells don’t meet state drinking water standards.  We have salmon streams that don’t have enough water in them to provide the habitat that salmon need.  And so on, and so forth. 

What could the County do?  It could plan.  It could figure out where water is available, where it isn’t, encourage development in areas where we have water and discourage development in areas where we don’t.  It could adopt rigorous regulations protecting water quality, because the County’s water supply problem in some areas is related to water pollution problems.  Of course, that would require believing in science -- including the science that says that leaking septic tanks and unlimited impervious surfaces are hard on water quality.

And it would require a view of government as a force to solve problems and help people.

What will the County do? 

It will wait for a catastrophe.

Maybe the tribes or the state will take legal action, someday, that will force the County to do something.  Maybe climate change will make the wells run dry.  Maybe salmon species will go extinct.

Someday, something drastic will happen, and County taxpayers will then be on the hook for enormous capital facilities expenditures for – who knows.  Desalination plants, pipelines and reservoirs for north county, maybe a reservoir on Mt. Baker to catch the melting glacial waters.

Doubt me?  Look at the precedent of Lake Whatcom, where the City of Bellingham is gearing up to build a multimillion dollar algae removal system.  In the meantime, the County delays action in favor of studying how to make sure that lot owners can build more houses around the lake without being burdened by pollution removal requirements.

So the only uncertainty about water supply that I see is when and how much taxpayers will pay. 

Looking on the bright side, by reading this short blog, you just saved the two days that you might otherwise spend at the symposium.

But if you still want to go for some reason, click here to see the program and to register.


  1. Jean, you're missing the point. Not only does the wit and wisdom that exists outside Whatcom County not penetrate county lines or county consciousness. Neither do physical laws, the laws of supply and demand, the rules of logic, or the demands of history and jurisprudence. It all ends here, Jean.

    A bracing new frontier!

  2. In preparation for the May 30/31 meeting, this humorous blog has some real life truth to it.

    1. Ha! But things are simpler here. I think that there's just one water law -- that one about possession being 9/10 of the law.

    2. Property rights being the *other* 9/10 of the law.

  3. I ran across this on the web today: "Lefties are always hoping that a great disaster will befall their neighbors, so that everyone else will be as miserable as they are."

    1. Let's see: You wrote, "What will the County do?

      It will wait for a catastrophe.

      Maybe the tribes or the state will take legal action, someday, that will force the County to do something. Maybe climate change will make the wells run dry. Maybe salmon species will go extinct."

      Someday, something drastic will happen, and County taxpayers will then be on the hook for enormous capital facilities expenditures for – who knows...."

      I rest.

    2. I see. Your purpose was to deride me as a miserable leftie. That's not really a helpful contribution.

  4. Perhaps Mr. Onkels can brush off the looming impacts of Judge Martinez's rulings and their financial impacts on negligent jurisdictions.

    Thank you so much Jean for keeping the discussion of water, and associated rights and responsibilities, in the public discourse.

    It's unfortunate Whatcom County, and now Bellingham as well, have determined to ignore state water laws. But then, so has the Dept of Ecology.

    Recently, Wendy Harris wondered why the mayor appointed so many development proponents to the city's planning body. It's no wonder the city has abandoned the legal action to compel Ecology protect Lake Whatcom and close that basin to further withdrawals.

    Let us all give thanks to those who worked so hard to defeat Dan Pike and put an end to efforts to do something meaningful and elect someone who obstructed those efforts.