Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wasting a Good Crisis

When isn't it?
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” or so they say that Winston Churchill said.  I’ve been seeing that quote in a lot of news articles lately, possibly because the world has no lack of crises not to waste.

Close to home, on April 17, Governor Inslee expanded a previous drought declaration to cover Whatcom Skagit, and northern Snohomish counties.

Drought declarations are based on likely “hardships” to farmers, water providers, and fish.  Department of Ecology director Maia Bellon’s drought order states that “Many of our major rivers are forecasted to have April through September runoff volumes that will be the lowest in the past 64 years.”

“In watersheds originating on the western slopes of the Cascades Mountains,” Director Bellon continues, “there is a high risk that fish populations will experience extreme low flow conditions this year. . . “”

Map of 2015 Drought Declaration Areas

These are the conditions that are likely to be the rule, not the exception, with increasing climate change, according to UW Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Cliff Maas.  (Perhaps those who still don't want to "believe in"  climate change  will find it persuasive that Pope Francis is a believer.)

So, what will Washington and Whatcom County do, to take advantage of this crisis? 

Well, the state plans to respond by digging us into a deeper hole.

According to Ecology,  “Once an area has been declared in drought, it can qualify for drought relief funds that can be used for leasing water rights for irrigators, deepening wells or drilling emergency wells.”  

So this crisis likely will provide an opportunity for taxpayers to subsidize private enterprise, likely at the expense of public resources – such as fish.  To read more about such “mischief in the public policy arena,” read CELP’s new blog.

In Whatcom County, the drought will give us the opportunity to practice ignoring water scarcity on a larger scale than usual.

Even when there isn’t an official drought, Whatcom County’s water management is based on a single principle:  possession.  Possession is 10/10ths of water law in Whatcom County.  Dig a ditch or pond, sink a well, stick a pump in the river, take what you need – that’s the law.
  • “Over 50% of ag water use in violation of some aspect of water code.”
    • Presentation, Whatcom Water Supply:  Searching for Certainty in Uncertain Times, 2013 (Farm Friends)
  • “60% of irrigation non-permitted”
    • Farm Flash E-News, Jan. 2012 (Farm Friends) 
  • "From the review of compiled public water system information, it appears that 326 public water systems do not have water rights." 
    • 2013 WRIA 1 Groundwater Data Assessment, p. 91
Even without drought conditions, fish are often out of water during the dry months. 
  • “From 1986 to 2009, the Nooksack River failed to meet instream flows 72 percent of the time during the July-September flow period.”  (Source:  NW Indian Fisheries Comm’n). 
  • “[A]verage minimum instream flows in the mainstem and middle fork Nooksack River are not met an average of 100 days a year.”  (Source:  Dept. of Ecology, Focus on Water Availability). 
The Nooksack “instream flows” were set in 1986, hypothetically to protect fish.  But they don’t.  Not only are instream flows ignored, but Ecology and the County have actively fought to reduce any protection that instream flows would provide (assuming that instream flows weren’t ignored, which they are).

For fear of backlash from building interests, Whatcom County and Ecology have teamed up (successfully, so far) to fight for the rights of new development to deplete instream flows.  The County and Ecology went to court to make sure that new water users can take water away from any senior water user with water rights dating as far back as 1986. 

And they've succeeded.  Ecology and Whatcom County obtained a court decision stating that new houses and subdivisions have the right to take water away from farmers and fish. Even if senior water users (such as farmers) have to cut back on water use to meet instream flows, even if brand new exempt wells dry up streams entirely, new exempt wells have highest and absolute priority.

This matters because of the very extensive rural sprawl that is baked into Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan and development regulations.  County planning provides for the greenfield construction of seven new City of Blaines (in population terms) outside of cities, in rural and agricultural areas. 

Where there’s already water scarcity, new greenfield construction will simply take water away from senior users.  Tough luck, fish and farmers! 

So -- what could we do about that? 

Well, I had a good idea.  My idea was that the County could use water availability to help guide its land use planning.  Where water is available, plan for growth.  Where water isn’t available, and can’t be made available without taking it from senior water users, guide growth away. 

What's the problem with that?  Potential backlash, of course.  I previously noted that "possession" is the only law of water use in this County, but come to think of it, that's wrong.  The second law is "avoid backlash."

Fish don't lash back, of course, and politicians only pretend to care about future generations during campaigns.  The reality is that future generations won't be voting in November.

And that is how the Tragedy of the Commons plays itself out, over, and over, and over. 

"Tragedy," as Garrett Hardin and Alfred North Whitehead define it, resides in "the remorseless working of things."

I still think that my idea was a good one.  Reflecting the remorseless working of water policy in Whatcom County, however, I have a new suggestion, and I think that it will be a popular one that will avoid backlash.

Everyone can agree that the highest and best use of water is for microbrews.  The proliferation of new breweries in Bellingham will help us to drown our sorrows.  To end with another optimistic quote from another eminent British thinker (John Maynard Keynes, this time), “In the long run we are all dead.” 

So let us eat, drink beer, be merry, and avoid backlash, until the long run catches up.



  1. In "Nature's Trust" Mary Christina Wood suggests that morality dictates that, like corporations, rivers and natural areas should have legal standing, "personhood" in our judicial system. We must provide the Nooksack, which will be here to provide ecological services for future generations, relief from lasting damage by temporary holders.

  2. Jean, I like your idea of guiding growth away from areas where water isn’t available (and can’t be made available without taking it from senior water users). Do you have - or have you seen - a map of these areas in Whatcom County?

    What are the interconnections between various water withdrawals in the county? In other words, is there a cumulative effect of withdrawing water directly from the Nooksack and withdrawing water from Lake Whatcom, which, I believe, diverts water from the Nooksack?

    If so, in anyone taking a holistic view of all water sources and withdrawal rights?

    1. Hi Larry,

      Ecology and the County are both charged with water planning. The County has not done any water planning in this millennium, but it is currently updating the "Coordinated Water System Plan" --

      The County is also updating its Comprehensive Plan, which is supposed to protect surface and groundwater resources.

      There's the WRIA 1 Joint Board/Management Team/Planning Unit, with various meetings on water issues:

      Ecology has a Water Resources Advisory Committee page with some information on Ecology's view of water issues ( Ecology's emphasis in Whatcom County right now is to make sure that new exempt wells can take water in areas where instream flows are not met. You can ask the Bellingham Field Office of Ecology if it has any other plans or priorities in Whatcom County.