Thursday, May 30, 2013

Water Supply Symposum: Planning for Water

I was on an interesting panel at the Water Supply Symposium today.  There were nine of us, representing different interests.  After the first eight of us had spoken, in civil and probably fairly boring terms, Randy Kinley Jr., from Lummi Nation, said what needed to be said. To paraphrase:

Everybody knows what needs to be done.  It doesn’t get done because of politics. 

Well, yeah.  There it is. 

County Council candidate Rud Browne asked for “thinking outside of the box” on the issue of water rights and water supply.  Somebody suggested to me after the symposium that it would be “thinking outside the box” if our County Council decided to comply with the Growth Management Act.   

And that is also something that needs to be said:   

In our county, a decision to comply with state law would be thinking well outside the current box.


My interest was “land use.”  Here’s what I said:

There’s a definition of “planning” in that says that planning is:

A basic management function involving formulation of one or more detailed plans to achieve optimum balance of needs or demands with the available resources.
The planning process (1) identifies the goals or objectives to be achieved,
(2) formulates strategies to achieve them,
(3) arranges or creates the means required, and
(4) implements, directs, and monitors all steps in their proper sequence.

We expect businesses to plan.  We expect families to plan, to make sure that the family budget balances needs or demands with available resources.  And planning is what Whatcom County should do.

Yes, we need to know more, but we actually have quite a bit of information about water availability.  We know that:

Most of Whatcom County’s surface waters are closed to further water withdrawal, either all year or in the critical summer months.  . 

Most farmers don’t have legal water rights.

There isn’t enough water for salmon in some of our streams. 

The Sumas aquifer has one of the worst levels of nitrate contamination in the state, with 70% of wells violating state water quality. 

Water supply is a problem that requires planning – a rational effort to achieve a balance of needs or demands with the available resources. 

But for some reason, the idea that Whatcom County should plan to achieve an optimum use of our most precious resource, water, has been viewed as way too radical.  Or a low priority.  Or something.

There’s no question that the County has the authority it needs to plan for the rational use of our water supply.  In fact, Goals 9 and 10 of the Growth Management Act  require the County to protect water quality, the availability of water, and fish and wildlife habitat. 

The County is required to plan for rural development that protects surface water, protects groundwater resources, and is compatible with fish habitat.  

As the Washington Supreme Court said recently, in its 2011 decision in Kittitas County v. Eastern Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd.,

Several relevant statutes indicate that the County must regulate to some extent to assure that land use is not inconsistent with available water resources.  The GMA directs that the rural and land use elements of a county’s plan include measures that protect groundwater resources.

What could the County do? 

When it’s deciding where to encourage or discourage growth, it could make water availability a key factor.  It could prevent further pollution of groundwater and surface water, because poor water quality in some areas translates into a lack of water supply.

I am representing local citizens who, along with Futurewise, are asking the Growth Management Hearings Board to find that Whatcom County has an obligation to make sure that its rural land use planning takes water supply into account.  This obligation is not only to address the exempt well issue, but also to consider water supply when planning for growth.

The County has said that it has no obligation to do anything that the Department of Ecology doesn’t force it to do.  A decision should be out next month.

But whether or not the County is required to protect water supply through planning, it certainly has the ability to do so.

Why does this matter?  Because we have a limited number of tools at our disposal, and because the stakes are so high. 

The tools that we have are state water law, and as previous speakers said, state water law is not enforced, and it’s not adequate to the task.

The tribes have options and rights, which are theirs to talk about;

And we have the County’s ability to plan for the optimal balance of needs. 

Let me leave you with another quote.

While none of us who live in Washington’s beautiful “fourth corner” are pleased with the prospect of spending substantial amounts of money on water resource issues, all of us have an important stake in the outcome of this work. If we fail to initiate and see these important projects through to successful completion, we will pay a much heavier price in the future. Without available and viable water resources, the beauty, strength and vitality that make Whatcom County a desirable place to live, raise our families and pursue our dreams will wither away.

This is nobody’s campaign speech.  This is from the introduction to Whatcom County’s current Comprehensive Water Resources Plan, signed by County Executive Peter Kremen in 1999.  Yes, Whatcom County’s current plan is now a teenager – 14 years old.

What were our ambitions at the turn of the millennium, when we adopted our current plan?  Let me quote just a couple of the goals of this Comprehensive Water Plan:

·        Whatcom County will have coordinated land use and habitat management that protects drinking water supplies and provides recreational opportunities while restoring and sustaining natural systems.

·        WATER SUPPLY: Whatcom County will have a locally developed watershed plan and implementation strategy that provides for long-term, reliable and sustainable water supplies by 2003.

Ten years later, in 2013, my fear is the fear of most of the people in this room.  My fear is that we’ll all be here – older, greyer, a little less spry – ten years from now. In 2023, in a county that has successfully resisted planning, we will find that it has also failed to provide for coordinated land use and habitat management.  Failed to provide for long-term, reliable, and sustainable water supplies.  A County with more farmers uncertain about their water supply, more wells that violate state water quality, and fewer salmon.

Thank you.


  1. Thanks Jean!

    I just read the alternative view of the symposium from the Whatcom Excavator -- a mode of thinking I fear could easily prevail in these deliberations, or at the very least, keep us from getting somewhere more productive.

    The sense among the Tea Party types seems to be that we can simply ignore (or outright deny) the realities of climate change, presenting very official-looking graphs replete with Comic Sans to demonstrate their point. For the issue of water in particular, this is likely to be an extremely unfortunate course for all of us -- especially those of us like me who are young enough to expect to see (and are already seeing) much of that crisis play out.

    More proximally, though, it appears they feel we can simply disregard the water rights of the tribe, which is a road that is fraught with their own peril. Unfortunately, it appears we may have to wait a number of years before that realization sets in, and in the mean time the situation will only get more challenging.

    It is in the interest of the ag community to continue to negotiate this, and to plan for the future. They are without doubt the most vulnerable contingent in the whole conversation as they have the least certain water rights. Unfortunately, it is looking like adjudication will be the only route by which these realities become clear.

    The question is how long that will take, how much more difficult the situation will get in the meantime, and how much of our limited taxpayer dollars they'll burn doing it.

    1. Good points, Matt.

      The questions of how long adjudication will take, how much more difficult the situation will get in the meantime, and how much of our limited taxpayer dollars they'll burn doing it are all difficult, adult questions. The Whatcom Excavator post doesn't address any of them. The Excavator is solely devoted, after all, to wedge politics.

      And if anybody wants to say "Yeah, you too, and your mother wears army boots, and besides, I hate Obama!" (you can tell that I looked at the Herald comments section recently), please address the points in my post above before doing so.

  2. Speaking of reaction to the symposium -- I was really disappointed by the reaction by Michelle Luke, chair of the Planning Commission and County Council candidate. Michelle wrote, on her campaign Facebook page:

    "I have been thinking about the day long water symposium today and how to describe what my ears heard. Not an easy task. A very simple takeaway is that one of the wettest corners of the country, with relatively a small population, does not have enough water. What this population does have is an abundance of special interest groups, attourneys, and regulations that prevent solutions. Tomorrow,day two promises to be the day OF solutions, hope springs eternal!"

    Maybe Michelle's ears didn't hear what I said. So let me repeat: Whatcom County has tools at its disposal to address water quality and water supply issues, and we need County leaders who will use those tools. Not idealogues who will close their ears to their constituents by labelling them "special interests." Not people who will blame everybody else and refuse to take responsibililty for their own part in failing to solve problems.

    Let me give one concrete example. Marty Maberry, representing agriculture, talked about the "houses springing up all over," and the vast amounts of impervious surfaces. "Water flashes off of" these impervious surfaces and doesn't replenish aquifers. "You're using more water than we are!", he concluded.

    There's a direct connection to Ms. Luke's Planning Commission in his statement.

    In order to reduce those impervious surfaces outside urban areas, County planning staff proposed modest limits on impervious surfaces. The Planning Commission refused to adopt ANY limits. That's right, on Rural residential lots, 100% of the lot can be covered by impervious surfaces. Ms. Luke voted for this.

    And then she calls those of us who tried to get the City Council to reconsider (it did not) "special interests" who prevent solutions.

    I hope that we'll elect Council members who can show respect for all of their constituents. And I hope that we will elect Council members who have ideas and experience that will lead to solutions, and who will have the courage to work towards those solutions.

    1. Regarding water flashing off impervious surfaces...Trees and grass suck up and consume rainwater. Roofs and driveways channel that rainwater directly down into the aquifer to help replenish it.

      That's the argument that the developer's lawyers presented at the hearing for the subdivision down the road. My hearing examiner bought right in. Unbelievable!

      John S

    2. It's disconcerting to live in a place where laws don't apply: state laws, laws of physics, laws of ecology --

  3. You wrote, "There's a direct connection to Ms. Luke's Planning Commission in his statement. "

    The Whatcom County Planning Commission is not "Ms. Luke's". You may not like the Planning Commission's position on impervious surface limits, but I do, and a majority of the Commission does as well.

    You appear to be the outlier on this issue, your stridency on it notwithstanding.

    1. I'm sorry that you're so angry.

      We're in agreement about much of what you said.

      I would be an outlier if I were on the Planning Commission.

      I know that you, and a majority of the Planning Commission, like the idea of covering 100% of rural residential lots with impervious surfaces.

      My point was that, if that's the policy that you promote ("you" referring to the Planning Commission), you -- individually and collectively -- need to take responsibility for the outcome of these policies.

    2. Yeah, he didn't address your point really at all, which was a good one. One can draw a straight line from Michelle Luke's policies of unmanaged and unmitigated urban sprawl to the water scarcity issues we're now dealing with.

      That other people share in Luke's persistent short-sightedness isn't particularly relevant. If he wanted to, he could also point out that Ben Elenbaas has also voted consistently to create future problems like these while on the "planning" commission -- like Luke, he is also in part responsible.

      Meanwhile, limited taxpayer money that could be used to help fix problems like these continues to get wasted in court... "fiscal conservatism," I think they like to call it. Just like "planning commission," "wise use," and "growth management," I feel the term rings hollow with this particular group of "leaders" in Whatcom County.

  4. Thanks to the Whatcom County Planning Commission and County Council, they have managed to make development in rural areas subject to an invalidity order. In the next 30 days, I suspect that even more noncompliance will be brought on these miscues.

    As for Ms. Luke's commission, she is campaigning behind her leadership of this group. Either she needs to take responsibility or distance herself. The truth is that she votes for these failed policies time after time.

  5. The idea that “we have lots of rain therefore we have lots of water” represents a common misunderstanding. A significant portion of that rainfall is not available for use out of stream because we can’t store it (I expect that the Water Budget report would contain information on this, and I’ll look into the numbers some more). At the Water Symposium, one of the speakers talked about how we must figure out the size of the pie, i.e. total water, and then figure out how to divide the pie between instream needs and out-of-stream needs. The size of the out-of-stream users’ slice is determined only partly by the size of the total pie, it’s also determined to a large degree by how much of the out-of-stream water allocation can be stored for later use in dry periods when water really is scarce. Snowpack and glaciers store some water for us in the highlands. In the agricultural areas of the lowland watersheds, we don’t have any suitable dam sites. Providing more storage capacity in the lowland watersheds will require some creative management of alternative water storage options, such as wise use of aquifer storage, strategically placed wetland storage, use of sub-irrigation techniques to hold water in the soil profile, and maybe even rain tanks. This is not rocket science, local farmers are already thinking along these lines and there are plenty of examples from other farming areas of practical ways to manage and store water on the landscape using natural hydrological processes. Infrastructure solutions for increasing storage could involve building the storage far away then pumping and piping the water to where it’s needed when it’s needed (expensive but not impossible). Another speaker at the Water Symposium suggested we might have to consider trucking in water for some users (also expensive but not impossible). Yes we have lots of rain. That does not mean we have lots of water available for consumptive use, though.

    1. The good news, I think, is that there's plenty of incentive to come up with solutions.

      As somebody pointed out -- maybe Marty Mayberry -- the fact that we do have rain means that the aquifers have a fighting chance. And that's better than the news about the country's largest aquifer, the Ogallala, and the Central Valley aquifer underlying the country's fruit and vegetable basket. We're using the stored resources of thousands of years of groundwater from those aquifers at a rate that greatly exceeds their recharge rates.

      Economics AND food security needs should provide incentives to find ways to keep agriculture going in Whatcom County. But it will take a process of identifying the goals or objectives to be achieved, formulating strategies, arranging or creating the means required, and
      implementing, directing, and monitoring all steps in their proper sequence.

      Yes -- planning.

  6. How hilarious it is: the outspoken scoflaw, Mr. Onkels, calling a defender of the law an "outlier." Statewide, Whatcom's considered the outlier. Witness its successes at the GMHB!

    And Ms. Luke! How we all long for her return to frozen silence.

    But then, who's to say scoflaws aren't really in charge everywhere. Why even the Dept of Ecology refuses to enforce its own findings on water availability, or respect the rulings of the state's courts on those issues.

    So, I suppose, outliers we are. Just too ignorant to understand the mothers' milk of politics.

  7. Jean, You said a mouthful: "Economics AND food security needs should provide incentives to find ways to keep agriculture going in Whatcom County." I believe Nicole will write about thinking about the type of ag uses we want to see in our county in the future in the context of the proposed slaughterhouse rezone and its implications for land use in the area now zoned "ag" and just as importantly, water use. Is it an issue that the county council is proceeding without a proper EIS, particularly one that considers not just environmental implications, but how water needs of industrial slaughterhouses would fit into the existing conundrum?