Saturday, April 26, 2014

“Whatcom County Has Plenty of Water,” And Other Happy Talk That Really Isn’t Helpful

This post is a delayed reaction to a panel discussion of Whatcom County water issues that took place last Saturday (this link will take you to Terry Wechsler’s summary of the forum on Northwest Citizen).

One phrase that was repeated umpty-times was “Whatcom County has plenty of water.”  Well, OK.

Let’s think about some other commodities that are plentiful in the County: 

Whatcom County has plenty of money:  Meander through Semiahmoo or Edgemoor, check out the coastal properties off of Chuckanut Drive, and it becomes readily apparent that there is plenty of money in Whatcom County.  I’m betting that we have so much money in Whatcom County that some of it even is sent abroad, to be hidden offshore. 

Whatcom County has plenty of food:  I was in Haggen’s just last night, and the shelves were downright groaning with food.  Farmers grow a lot of food here – milk, berries, all sorts of good things.  Plenty of food.  We even export some of it.  We have so much food that some of it gets thrown away.
And yet, people are poor.  And yet, people go hungry. 

The point is, of course, that overall quantity is one measure of plenty, but it isn’t the most useful measure when distribution is the problem.  And distribution is the problem with water.
Unless and until those winter flood waters voluntarily decide to route themselves into giant natural cisterns, and then accommodatingly flow onto farm fields in August, the fact that we have “plenty of water” (as an annual figure) doesn’t really solve our problem.

OH NO, have I started a meme?  Will people now claim that flood waters will route themselves into previously-unknown natural cisterns, and then will disperse themselves onto farm fields?

My concern is not as far-fetched as you might think.  The statement that got the biggest rise out of the audience last week was farmer Marty Maberry’s announcement that a previously-unknown deep aquifer, “bigger than the Amazon and the Columbia Rivers put together,” had been discovered under Seattle.

Members of the audience (1) immediately thought that he meant “under Whatcom County” (he hadn’t said that, but we all tend to hear what we want to hear), and (2) asked how we can get one of our own.  Marty suggested that we should be putting our money into drilling, so we can discover more previously-unknown deep aquifers.

Well, heck.  Who can blame Marty.  We all want a silver bullet.  And dealing with water issues in this county does have all the fun and sense of achievement of trying to run through a vat of drying cement.   I think that everybody involved is frustrated and would like to be rescued by a giant deep aquifer.

The only problem is that there is no vast, previously-unknown deep aquifer under Seattle.  There is a vast underwater canyon that belches salty, nutrient-laden water into Puget Sound, as my comments on the Northwest Citizen argument explain (with links).  UW researchers recently found that this canyon is bigger than the Amazon and Columbia Rivers, combined.   But it’s no freshwater source.

It’s a bummer.  It throws us back into the vat of drying cement, where none of us wants to be.  But you know what -- we’ve made a big part of that vat ourselves by our heedlessness in ignoring water issues.  The natural world is complex and only getting more so with climate change.  And that’s the reality that we face.

Therefore, I would suggest that it doesn’t help to keep repeating “we have plenty of water” without some clarification.

Who are “we”? Do We the Fishes count?

How do we gauge “plenty”?  Do time-and-place matter?

The state of Washington answered both of those questions in 1985, when it established instream flows (for We the Fishes) and closed watersheds during dry periods.  Yes, fish are part of “we.”  No, “plenty” doesn’t mean that we have enough water when and where we need it.

Almost thirty years later, it’s not like these concerns have gone away.  “Plenty” is as plenty does, and our “plenty” has some strings attached.

So please, no more empty happy talk.  Let’s have some action.


Why is Grumpy Blogger so grumpy?  See the response to Progress Hornsby, below.  

As promised, here's the factual record of Whatcom County's water resource management, in the words of the State Growth Management Hearings Board.  

But hey, this is nothing that Happy Talk can't handle. If we all believe -- REALLY BELIEVE -- that we have the best of all possible County governments. . . . 

if we all snap our fingers and say "Yes, Tink, I believe!". . . . (or, alternatively, "Whatever is, is right," with the theme from Candide running through our minds),

then all these problems just go away. 

"The record demonstrates the following in the County’s Rural Area regarding surface and groundwater resources:

•    Ecology’s WRIA 1 State of the Watershed Report  shows year-round or seasonally closed watersheds account for a large portion of the County.

•    Ecology’s Focus on Water 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.  The record indicates average minimum instream flows in the mainstem and middle fork Nooksack River are not met an average of 100 days a year.

• In its 1999 Water Resource Plan, the County reported 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. Petitioners document 1,652 wells have been drilled within closed basins since 1997 and argue that despite basin closures, 637 water right applications were pending as of March 2011.80 The record does not disclose what portion of these exempt wells meet the criteria for legal availability of water.

• A 2012 Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission report shows that 77% of the increase in exempt wells in WRIA 1 has taken place in basins closed year round or seasonally to water withdrawal. 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.”

•    A 2008 Department of Ecology report documents nitrate contamination of a rural Whatcom aquifer. 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 recent study, 75% of sampled wells failed to meet drinking water standards for nitrates. Groundwater withdrawals are not prohibited in the Sumas-Blaine aquifer.

•    The County’s most recent Water Resource Plan was adopted in 1999 and has not been updated.

•    On September 6, 2011, the County Council unanimously approved a Resolution to fund a Water Supply Planning Project to comply with RCW 70.116 to update water system plans. The County appropriated funds because “Counties should update their plans if there are major or significant changes to land use plans that would be impacted by water supply for potable purposes." The County Resolution states: “Land use decisions are made assuming sufficient water resources will be available to serve these land uses. In Whatcom County, water supply is not sufficient to meet all competing needs whether it is because of water rights, water quality or water quantity.” 

•    Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan Chapter 11 Environment explains that “Surface and groundwater quality problems can be found in many areas of Whatcom County and are described in various chapters of the Comprehensive Plan. There are significant legal limitations 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. . . including] 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.”

• A 2012 Department of Ecology report on nitrate contamination for wells in the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer states 29% of wells in northwestern Whatcom County exceeded maximum nitrate contamination levels and 14% of wells had more than double the maximum allowed rate of contamination. Thirty-six percent (36%) of shallow wells (less than 40 feet in depth) exceed allowable nitrate contamination levels, while 20% of deeper wells also exceed the standard. Ecology’s report documents the percentage nitrate contribution from various sources and states the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer is “especially vulnerable to contamination from overlying land uses.” Ecology recommends seven steps the County could take to address aquifer nitrate contamination.

•    A 2012 Washington State Health Department study on fecal coliform pollution in Puget Sound ranks Drayton Harbor as the second highest contaminated shellfish bed in Puget Sound. Drayton Harbor’s shellfish beds had a fecal pollution index (FPI) between 1.50 and 2.00; FPIs above 1.0 indicates an area has “experienced significant fecal pollution.”

•    The Birch Bay Initial Closure Response Strategy (May 2009) describes increased fecal coliform pollution in Birch Bay from 2005 to 2008, another shellfish growing area in Whatcom County.  In 2008, the Washington State Department of Health closed Birch Bay to commercial shellfish harvesting. Two sources of contamination were listed: wastewater collection/disposal and agricultural activities. The report recommended identifying ways to bring private sewer systems into compliance with the County's operating and maintenance standards.

•    In the 2006 Bertrand Creek: State of the Watershed Report, the County and other cooperating organizations documented land use changes in the Bertrand Creek Watershed which include “loss of water-retention capacity of wetlands and the increase in pavement, rooftops, and other hard surfaces resulting in a “flashy watershed.” Such watersheds mean these areas reach flood stage quickly, have more pollution potential, and dwindle down to extremely low flow during the driest months. The Bertrand Creek report offers nine solutions ranging from water conservation, water “banking”, importing water, protecting wetlands and “substituting groundwater sources for current surface water rights...only if there was no significant continuity between surface and groundwater, and if there were no serious water quality issues with the groundwater. Potential problems include high nitrates, iron, salts and low oxygen, in groundwater.” 

• Whatcom County is listed with “impaired water bodies” in the 2010 State of the Watershed Report which is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s report on the status of Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Since 2000, Whatcom County’s “impaired water bodies” have increased from 47 to 77. Of those, only 6 water bodies have been analyzed and have had standards established for allowable total allowable pollution (Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs))."



  1. The problem is that elections run on four year cycles, constituents have short memories, and politicians get recycled to different roles and responsibilities. Until we as citizens hold politicians responsible for long-term thinking (minimum 20 years out, in my opinion) in a short-term cycle (usually four years; two for representatives), we will keep getting punting as an effectively sustainable strategy for those in office, even if it doesn't work so well for the rest of us. It would help to have menaingful local investigative journalism, too.

  2. In 2014, we have more science and more extensive and effective technology to measure what is going on in our Salish Sea. Whatcom County is a coastal community with many estuaries where fresh water supports ecosystems. Today, beyond the fish, an unknown that must be resolved is the quantity of clean, fresh water needed to support the ecosystems of our estuaries. Our water management program should be built from the estuary up to the mountain, not the other way around.

    1. What a powerful idea.

      And yet -- at this point, I'd settle for a water management program that was built from the mountain to the estuary. At least it would be a water management program.

      At the bottom of this blog (it's too long for a comment), I've added the record that the Hearings Board cited to support its conclusion that the County has not protected water resources. I've read this a lot of times, but tonight, two things stood out:

      (1) The County had a Water Resource Plan in 1999. That means both that our Water Resource Plan is 14 years old (cup half empty) and that we HAD a Water Resource Plan, so we can do it again (cup half full).
      (2) People who don't know all of this are happier people.