Friday, January 31, 2014

Talking to the Tea Party About Water

Sumas River.  Photograph by Lee First.
Tea Party activist and KGMI radio personality Kris Halterman posted a blog about last Tuesday’s County Council meeting.  The short blog contained the usual misstatements and inaccuracies about our water case, and added an assertion that we had failed to respond to Tea Party talking points. 
In fact, we responded to two sets of Tea Party talking points:  those posted on the Tea Party web site and those posted on Ms. Halterman’s KGMI web site.  Our response is here.

And now I’d like to ask the Tea Party to respond to the information below, all of which is based on state agency reports and the County’s planning documents. 

The only responses I’ve heard so far are (1) bad city people want to warehouse rural people in concrete jungles, to live like rats in mazes, and (2) the County should spend millions of dollars to hire Tea Party-approved scientists to redo the work of agencies, in order to reach Tea Party-approved results.

Argument (1), promoted by state Senator Doug Ericksen on Ms. Halterman’s radio show, is an effort to create animosity and division in order to divert attention from the facts. It does not, of course, address Whatcom County’s situation.

Argument (2) assumes that Whatcom County’s desire to assuage the Tea Party knows no temporal, monetary, or legal limits.  While the County’s actions over the past four years do support this assumption, the voters who elected the Council majority appear to hope that the County will someday start to base its policies on facts and law.

If the Tea Party is willing to go beyond these two arguments, and to engage in the solution of the issues identified below based on fact and law, I’d be very interested to hear its proposals.

From (the Tea Party talking points are in italics, and our responses are in plain type):

 This case, and the issue generally, raises numerous important concerns:
If there are water quality and quantity problems, how have those been proven – to whom?
  • The WRIA 1 State of the Watershed report shows year-round or seasonally closed watersheds account for a large part of the County.  Ecology has found that average minimum instream flows in the mainstem and middle fork Nooksack River are not met an average of 100 days a year. 
  • Ecology’s Focus on Watershed Availability report states “Most water in the Nooksack watershed is already legally spoken for.”  Instream flows for WRIA 1 were established in 1985 and codified at WAC 173-501.  As a result of instream flow requirements, some of the water sources are closed year round to additional withdrawals and some are closed part of the year. 
  • In its 1999 Water Resource Plan, the County reported that a proliferation of rural residential exempt wells already created “difficulties for effective water resource management” by drawing down underlying aquifers and reducing groundwater recharge of streams.  Since the report was issued, more than 1,000 additional wells have been drilled in closed basins.
  • The link between stream flows and groundwater withdrawals in the shallow Whatcom aquifers is well documented.  A number of studies indicate that shallow aquifers of the County are responsible for approximately 70% of base stream flow. 
  • The Sumas-Blaine aquifer is the only readily available drinking water source for 27,000 rural residents of Whatcom County.  Nitrate contamination in the aquifer has been documented for over 40 years.  In a 2012 study, 29% of sampled wells failed to meet drinking water standards for nitrates, and 14% of wells had double the maximum allowed nitrate levels.
  • A 2012 Washington State Health Department study on fecal coliform pollution in Puget Sound ranked Drayton Harbor as the second-highest contaminated shellfish bed in Puget Sound.
  • Whatcom County has 77 impaired water bodies under the Clean Water Act’s Section 303(d) standard.  Of these, only 6 water bodies have been analyzed and have had standards established for Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). 
  • The County’s own Comprehensive Plan states:  “Surface and groundwater quality problems can be found in many areas of Whatcom County. . .There are significant legal limitation in obtaining water.  Management actions between and within jurisdictions are not always well coordinated or consistent. . .These problems and issues have already led to many impacts. . .includ[ing] health concerns associated with drinking contaminated water; fisheries depletion and closure of shellfish harvesting areas and other instream problems; a lack of adequate water storage and delivery systems to meet the requirements of growth and development; concerns with the availability of water to meet existing agricultural and public water supply demands; potential difficulties and additional costs associated with obtaining building permits and subdivision approvals; and other related increasing financial costs to the community.  Long-term resolution of the numerous, complex and changing water issues requires actions in many areas.”  
This evidence, and much more, was cited in the Growth Management Hearings Board’s decision."


  1. Minimum in-stream flows are nothing but an Agenda 21 plot to ensure country people are forced to cohabitate with migratory salmonids on their last (and soon to be rotting) legs.

    1. Now you've done it, Krogh. When we see comments on the Herald's web page saying "It's an Agenda 21 plot to make rural people cohabitate with rotting salmon!" we'll know who to blame.

      As pointed out in this blog, instream flows quite clearly predate Agenda 21:

      But then, I've been accused of letting facts get in the way of a good story.

  2. At what point do we cry foul? An ideological paradigm urging disregard for water quality and quantity preservation fails to recognize how essential water is to individual and public health. It thus constitutes a deadly threat to adherents as well as others. Isn't danger to self and others a threshold for involuntary commitment?

    1. If danger to self and others were a threshold for involuntary commitment, a whole bunch of congresspersons, Supreme Court justices, and bankers would be in asylums, so - I guess not.

      But the ideological paradigm that you describe does seem to want to take on all of the other species that inhabit this lovely planet. A comment in the Bellingham Herald today: "One whack job actually said we had to improve the salmon habitat in order to make sure the killer wales had enough to eat."

      In light of the fact that Wales is quite a peaceful place, this angry man must be hatin' on orcas. It's kind of sad if Whatcom County's dominant paradigm is that we don't need no stinkin' orcas. Or tourist industry. Or food chain, Or web of life. The one and only value that matters is the right to make speculative profits from land conversion.

      Really, Whatcom County? That's all we care about?

  3. Can't speak for any Tea Party member and I assume the Agenda 21 thing is a joke by someone but there is one issue with in-stream flows you might agree with.

    When the in-stream flows on the Nooksack were established and then codified in the '80s, Ecology used a completely bogus approach that all sides in the discussion can, and should, reject. In some cases it could cause great harm to critters in the river and in other cases it gives a misleading picture of the river, groundwater and, flow.

    The 80's instream flows were based on "average" flows meaning that anything above average is "enough" and anything below average is "impaired."

    That technique guarantees, by its very nature, violations of minimum in-stream flows in most years at least some of the time. Average being what it is, some days or hours or whatever will be above average and some will be below average unless the water is flowing through a pipe at a constant pressure.

    What really is needed is a fact based assessment of what fish and other critters need to maintain healthy populations in the various streams of importance and then a setting of flows based on that.

    I've always found it astonishing that we can do water allocations and allotments in areas of water shortages whereas in areas like ours, where water is seldom short, we flail around like chickens with our heads cut off (that's an old farm saying). If we really want to solve the "water problems" we supposedly face we can do that but, politics do intrude, do they not?

    1. Jack, your basic assumption is that "water is seldom short," and that's where we diverge. Water is short here, in many places, and especially in the summer. And there's a bigger problem: Mother Nature isn't static. It behooves us to plan for the effects of climate change, but we can't even plan for existing conditions in the 21st century -- the County's water planning is all from the last millennium.

      We know, from fish and wildlife managers, that "fish and other critters" don't have the water that they need to survive right now. The claim that the first and most important goal is to recalculate instream flow numbers needs to be evaluated in light of that fact.

      Now, I understand that the Tea Party and the real estate industry are clamoring to revise instream flows through the WRIA 1 caucus groups. And as long as the County continues to view those two groups as its sole constituency, that's how the County will spend its time and money. The effort will waste many years, and if key players are not involved, why does anyone think that Ecology will approve it?

      But you know what, Jack, the dominant response to this blog from my friends has been "Why do you keep thinking that either the County or the Tea Party cares about facts?" And they're right. The narrative of "bad city people, bad Indians, fish don't matter, property rights!" will continue to ensure bad water management and bad planning. And I would bet against the Seahawks before I would bet against a lengthy, expensive, and eventually purposeless WIRA 1 Planning Unit reexamination of instream flows.

      Hey, I got a Superbowl reference in! Touchdown for me!

  4. Speaking of Tea Party talking points, I just read this comment on the Herald's web site by Nick Evans, "Political Director at Whatcom Republicans" Holy schnickelfritz. Can't even begin to count the number of factual and legal inaccuracies in this statement.

    "Futurewise is the one that can't "tolerate the law". The law does not apply to exempt wells (wells for single family homes on rural land) because the homes that draw from those auqifers return over 90% of that water to said aquifer via their septic systems. The recommendations from Futurewise and the County would require a private land owner to prove a zero molecule impact from the aquifer they are drawing from, which is impossible to prove. The County was correct in continuing the lawsuit against the un-elected Growth Management Hearings Board, who is trying to re-write the law via the courts in order to appease these extreme environmental groups who want nothing more than to halt all rural development and force people into little filing cabinets in the city."

    This must be a winning political message, since it comes from the Republicans' political director. When politics are entirely disconnected from facts, I suppose that we need to expect our policies to be equally disconnected from facts.

  5. Jean, I started to respond to Nick Evans, and figured his loss of common sense and facts wasn't worth it. I do believe reading laws that created the Hearings Board - in fact, it was called the Four Corners as it had support from republicans and democrats, including the wild conservative Speaker Clyde Ballard from East Wenatchee. Good grief, Mr. Evans underwear must be a bit tight.

    1. Well, "little filing cabinets in the city" is new. That's an addition to the conversation, right? It started as "warehouses," then went to "cement boxes," and now it's all the way down to "little filing cabinets." Next will come "glove compartments," and then, finally, "those little metal containers that Altoids come in."

    2. Oh, no, now I've done it. We're going to start hearing that instream flows are an Agenda 21 plot to make country people cohabit with rotting salmon in Altoids tins.

  6. Whatever the case, science should be used to establish minimum instream flows...not politics...

    1. “Chinook salmon in the Nooksack River watershed are ‘swimming’ against the threat of extinction due to rising water temperatures related to the effects of climate change and a historical loss of freshwater habitat, as well as other factors.. . . [L]ast year, a mere 200 adult Chinook salmon, out of an estimated population of 10,000 to 15,000, returned to the South Fork Nooksack River for the spring spawning season.”

      Now tell me again, Jack, why redoing the science on instream flows ought to be the County's highest priority? It doesn't appear that salmon are drowning from excessive instream flows.

  7. Universal laws of science do not apply in Whatcom County, and neither should the laws of men. Water used in the rural area recharges. Water used in urban areas does not recharge. Water quality is degraded in rural areas by geese and in urban areas by dogs (possibly also otters and trees). Aquatic invasive species are the result of not inspecting motor boats. And virtually no development results in significant environmental impact. And when it does, the impacts disappear when the Hearing Examiner approves a permit. But I would be remiss if I did not mention a growing environment threat identified by a Planning Commissioner... swans. Carry on.

  8. Maybe our friends so anxious to see population growth and development in Whatcom county can take some cheer from the drought soon to drive people from California. As the Pacific decadal oscillation fails to oscillate, and the sixty year cycle of cooling perhaps signals the beginning of the three hundred year event, the odds of any genuine science ratifying the idea present instream flows are more than needed are less than small.

  9. Jean, I will acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion between many tea partiers and your world view. When science is politicized, it becomes very corrupt, very fast. Many tea partiers are concerned that "science", conducted by paid consultants for un-elected bureaucrats may be suspect. We are concerned when other scientists (and not necessarily just the "tea party approved" variety) get locked out (or laughed out) of the hearings process. We simply want an honest, open dialog. And yes, we want our side to be heard.

    But I hardly think the county is cow-towing to tea party mewlings. If you are referring to the county's decision not to drop the GMHB appeal, well, the tea party was but one of many who sent out mailers on the subject. And though we were well represented at the council meeting, it wasn't as if the turnout was packed with tea party regulars. It was much broader than that. What's more, the county could change their decision any time they wish -- and they probably will. It isn't binding, and when the legal bills start rolling in, look out. Things will change in a hurry.

    By the way, I am at a loss as to where the narrative came from that the tea party and land speculators are somehow joined at the hip. I am very active in the Whatcom Tea Party, and I don't know any land speculators. I should think that I would have knowingly bumped into some of them by this time -- especially if they were feeding us doctrine.

    1. Karl, I'm just asking the Tea Party to respond to the evidence in the record, beyond saying either that all the scientists involved are corrupt or that the people who suggest that this science is important are bad. Still waiting.