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The Clean Water program is responsible for monitoring and protecting our precious water resources. We use science, policy and education to reduce pollution and toxics in the Salish Sea and its uplands and address water quality and quantity issues in rural Whatcom communities. Read more.

  • Active Hope: The Salish Sea I love is dying. What can I do? By Hannah Coughlin. Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, October 23, 2019I have been called to the water for as long as I can remember. As a kid, you couldn ...
    Posted Oct 27, 2019, 3:51 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Recent Attacks on the Environment By Simon Bakke. Originally published in Whatcom Watch, October 2019.September 2019, Week one: Trump administration announces plans to undo energy-efficient lightbulb standards first set in motion by George ...
    Posted Oct 27, 2019, 3:47 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Take Action: Keep orca recovery efforts going strong! Thank you for adding your voice to make sure Gov. Inslee's Orca Task Force work can continue, and ensuring it focuses on actions that will make the biggest waves ...
    Posted Oct 25, 2019, 9:28 AM by Simon Bakke
  • Community kayak tour: How do we make a healthier, more accessible Bellingham Bay?  By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead ScientistOver this past year, the Southern Resident Orca population lost three family members, bringing the whole population to a solemn 73 ...
    Posted Oct 7, 2019, 3:14 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Save Whatcom County money and plan for sea level rise now  By Executive Director Shannon Wright. Originally published in The Northern Light, August 28th, 2019Whatcom County shorelines are dynamic places, both in terms of vibrant, distinct communities as well as ...
    Posted Oct 3, 2019, 12:54 PM by Simon Bakke
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 80. View more »

Active Hope: The Salish Sea I love is dying. What can I do?

posted Oct 27, 2019, 3:51 PM by Simon Bakke

By Hannah Coughlin. Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, October 23, 2019

I have been called to the water for as long as I can remember. As a kid, you couldn’t get me out of the pool without tears. As a teen, every angsty after-school activity was at one of the dozen beaches within my 20-mile radius. As an adult, the water is where I went when each of my parents died before their time, when my sister had a psychotic breakdown, before I said my vows to my husband, before my son was born. Water has always been the refuge I turn to.

But something has changed over the years. I used to go to the water for peace, for clarity, for that sense of connection to my “place in the order of things,” as poet Mary Oliver put it. After five minutes I could feel my tensions melt away. After 10 minutes, a shift in perspective as a (desperately needed) parasympathetic state settles in. After 15, I’m nearly entranced as my eyes are full of the endless horizon, my ears full of the reassuring pattern of lapping waves, my heart full of the mystery of water’s power and almost maternal healing hallmark—mysteries my ancestors have experienced and explored in countless ways for countless generations.

The fact is, I love the Salish Sea with my whole heart. I always have. I love it as my oldest, wisest, most nurturing grandmother. She feeds me. She heals me. She restores me to balance.

However, amid the wonder and tranquility, my experience at the water is now interspersed with apologies for the degradation we’ve caused. My joy is layered between moments of grief and sorrow for the loss—the pollution, the algae blooms, the warming waters, the species die-off. And in the break between waves washing ashore, I think about my son’s future. I worry about the rising seas, the droughts and the storms that will shape his experience. He may not get to take his children fishing or crabbing. He may not be able to safely jump into the water for a swim. He may never know the joy of eating an oyster off the beach, and may never see an orca whale in the San Juan Islands. I trust he will adapt, and may not even experience loss over what he does not know. But I may not be able to share with him some of the most awe-inspiring ways of interacting with the natural world.

Facing these feelings is overwhelming at best, at worst, it’s crippling. I know these are common feelings. Most of my colleagues and friends feel the same. And almost every gathering with friends ends with the question, “So, what do we do?”

In all of this sorrow, I have found peace and hope in this truth: the contributions I make are creating little pockets of beauty and healing. While climate scientists have their supercomputer algorithms to analyze tens of thousands of potential catastrophic outcomes, they cannot predict the positive influence of a growing movement of respect, compassion and generosity.

And the truth is, there is so much that can be done. Today. Right here. There are reparations that my community and I have the ability to effect in my lifetime.

In this country, we are lucky enough to be able to leverage the laws and processes of a democratic society. A groundswell of public will, if applied correctly with strategy and accuracy, can have incredible strength. I’ve witnessed it multiple times over my two decades in activism and 10 years working at RE Sources. There are multiple bright opportunities on the horizon today that can bring about unknowable repair and shifting in the collective psyche that is so fractured and adrift today.

In some cases, these changes are what ecologist Joanna Macy calls in her book Active Hope, “Holding actions.” This is basically holding the line to prevent further degradation and destruction. It’s only one leg of the stool, but it’s an essential one.

Today, Trump’s (Anti) Environmental Protection Agency is providing us many opportunities to strengthen our holding-action muscles. As EPA director Wheeler systematically works to strip waters of bare minimum protections, and strip states of their constitutional right to establish their own environmental oversight, it could be seen as an invitation to flex the muscles of our individual and collective holding power to say, “We cannot allow that.” We have every likelihood of winning in these cases. The law is on our side. The strategy, intelligence, and legal knowhow is on our side (thanks to justice-seeking organizations like RE Sources, our North Sound Baykeeper, and the partners we work with in coalitions like Waterkeepers Washington). We have the roadmap for a movement that can, and will, win.

Holding actions, like standing in the way of corrupt government actions and corporate greed, are critical—we can’t lose any more ground. But the Salish Sea needs us to do more than hold the line. Many of the changes we need to make are “Structural Changes”—the second leg in Macy’s stool. As the architect and systems thinker Buckminster Fuller said, “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Here in our backyards, we can do just that. We have a powerful point of leverage to make the existing model of ever-expanding fossil fuel extraction, shipment, and use obsolete by simply deciding we won’t allow it. The deepwater port at Cherry Point—one of the few remaining of its kind on the West Coast—has been an increasingly sought after locale for the export of coal, coke, tar sands crude oil, fracked gas, and petrochemical byproducts over the past four decades. But as Whatcom County residents, led by Lummi Nation, have proven time and time again, we are the thin green line that will not allow the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve and ancestral grounds to be turned into the gateway for expanding fossil fuel shipments the world cannot even afford to burn.

You remember how citizens across the Northwest banded together to hold the line against the proposed Gateway Pacific coal terminal—which was backed by some of the most powerful deep pockets in the nation—for the six-year review process? Then, when victory was wrung in through the power of Lummi Nation’s great stand, we found a way to close the book on the recurring fight for Cherry Point’s future.

RE Sources, activists, families, business owners, students and fisherpeople urged Whatcom County Council to write into law legal protections that would have lasting reign over Cherry Point’s future, allowing it to remain intact as a place of ceremonial significance, an important component of honoring tribal treaty rights, and one of the state’s eight Aquatic Reserves that produces the basic ingredients for the entire Salish Sea web of life. After three years of process, the County Council will finally decide if this history-making code amendment should be written into law in the next few months. I hope you will be inspired to speak up for the Salish Sea, and support the acceptance of these code amendments.

Here’s another example for how we can create new standards and break the mold for how much bare minimum we can bear. In November, the state is inviting the public to participate in the rewrite of an important aspect of the Streamflow Restoration Act. This rulemaking process will address emerging concerns about our limited supply of freshwater and will affect the amount of water in the Nooksack River and the groundwater that is connected to it. Streamflows in the Nooksack basin, an important area for five species of salmon, are frequently too low to actually support the salmon that depend on it for survival.

If you care about the die-off of the Southern Resident orcas, you need to care about the Streamflow Restoration Act and participate in every chance we have to strengthen it. This law can make or break the Salish Sea food chain. Tackling water use now, before hotter summers and population growth make it an all-out crisis, is a powerful structural change we can easily effect if we apply ourselves to the task.

Another structural change we can spark locally is through the Whatcom County Shoreline Management Program. This lawmaking process dictates what can be built within 200 feet of any salt or freshwater shoreline. Water experts have emphasized the importance of shoreline functions for habitat (like the eelgrass beds at Cherry Point that support the Salish Sea web of life), for climate change preparedness (like projects to protect homes and businesses from sea level rise and flooding), and filter polluted stormwater runoff. Taking steps toward proactive climate preparedness and protection, before the damage is upon us, is a fortifying structural change. In order for the County Council to improve the plan to protect our shorelines, Whatcom County residents have to call upon them to do so. In January, they’ll need to hear that you’re paying attention and that you care.

When we respond to opportunities like the few I mentioned—and there are so many more—these holding actions and structural changes will naturally elicit the third leg of Macy’s stool: a shift in consciousness. Macy calls for these three ingredients as the catalysts for the “great turning,” the third revolution in history, the transition from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining model—a transition that will occur much more rapidly because it has the conscious participation of humanity, and because it has to.

Whether you call them holding actions and structural changes, or embodying the thin green line, or a cultural paradigm shift, or everyday activism—the truth is that taking action helps answer the question, “What can we do?” It turns helplessness into a rewarding opportunity to link arms with our neighbors and embody something bigger than ourselves. Action offers us hope that the future just might have some silver linings. And it gives us courage for today.

The other aspect of my relationship with the water that has emerged, as I sit close and breathe in the sea air, is one of reciprocity. Humans’ relationship with the natural world, with the sacred waters of life, have always been and always will be just that—a relationship. I take, I give. I benefit, I care for. She loves, I love back.

Let your love for the Salish Sea be your call to an awakened chapter of action: Visit re-sources.org/signup and sign up for something that speaks to you. Take a risk, attend an event, link arms with your community. Make your money do something truly valuable and support organizations that are fighting for the world we need.


Photo by Thomas Gotchy.

Recent Attacks on the Environment

posted Oct 27, 2019, 3:41 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Oct 27, 2019, 3:47 PM ]

By Simon Bakke. Originally published in Whatcom Watch, October 2019.

September 2019, Week one: Trump administration announces plans to undo energy-efficient lightbulb standards first set in motion by George W. Bush.

Week two: The Environmental Protection Agency repeals Obama-era definitions of “Waters of the United States,” cutting U.S. Clean Water Act protections for millions of miles of streams, wetlands, waterways that cross state boundaries, and more, incentivizing pollution and development farther and farther upstream.

Week three: The EPA is set to revoke California’s ability to create vehicle emission standards. Millions take to the streets for the Youth Climate Strike in hundreds of cities globally.

Week four: The EPA holds public hearings after its announced plan to gut Washington’s water quality standards. Every bite of local seafood Washingtonians consume will contain higher levels of toxic heavy metals and carcinogens if EPA adopts this proposal. Without these standards, Washington has no safety net from Clean Water Act rollbacks.

Ranging from ridiculous to downright dangerous, the relentless assault on protections for our climate, clean air, and clean water has made September a particularly hard month to keep up with the news — and keep down my breakfast. It’s not just federal erosion of laws that keep everyone safe that has my stomach in knots, it’s the administration’s trampling on states’ abilities to protect their citizens and natural resources.

Washington state and the Salish Sea have unique natural resources and habitats that can’t be protected with generic — and weak — federal standards. They simply don’t take into account our particular ecosystems or the specific threats to them. Despite the diversity of oceans, shorelines, salmon-bearing rivers, creeks, groundwater and wetlands that define our beautiful state, today’s EPA would have us abandon any protections for water that go beyond their narrow, one-size-fits-all definitions.

When confronted with this concerning trend, my inbox is flooded with friends and family asking, “What on Earth can I do about this?”

Opportunities to Speak Up

Despite the national headlines, there’s good news closer to home. We have meaningful opportunities to strengthen protections for Whatcom County’s people and natural resources during the coming months. And our active community has a long history of getting results by speaking up. Here are some ways you can be the change you want to see, right here, right now.

This summer, Whatcom County was updating the rules designed to protect saltwater and freshwater shorelines (known as the Shoreline Management Program). This plan would have carried on with business as usual, but hundreds of Whatcom residents seized the public input period and urged the County Council to look at the projected impacts of sea level rise, and examine whether or not we’re hitting targets for “no net loss” to vital shoreline functions.

But this process is not over. In January 2020, RE Sources and other local groups will connect the community with other ways we can minimize costs to taxpayers down the road and let nature do its vital work for free: preventing erosion, moderating flooding impacts, and filtering toxic chemicals from rain runoff. We need to speak up to ensure the County Council takes comprehensive action for our shorelines. I hope you’ll join me in taking action in January to protect so much of Whatcom’s invaluable shoreline habitats and communities.

We have another historic opportunity in the coming months to protect our region. Between now and December is the finale of a years-long battle to stop Cherry Point in north Whatcom County from becoming an expanding fossil fuel transshipment hub, and to hold the existing industries to higher standards for public health and environmental impacts. Most expansion projects of fossil fuel facilities here have had inadequate environmental review for 60 years, and many of their existing impacts to air and water were grandfathered in before key environmental laws were enacted.

The Whatcom County Council is poised to pass amendments to land use law that would prohibit new coal, oil or gas transshipment facilities in the Cherry Point industrial zone — all because people unyieldingly pushed them on it after the would-be largest coal export terminal in North America was proposed, and ultimately blocked. This would be a massive boon for salmon, herring, orcas, and commercial and tribal fisheries. I hope you will follow this issue and make your voice heard. This is a history-making moment, and you have the ability to act in a way that will have global ripple effects.

Proposed amendments could also set common-sense rules requiring the largest pollution sources in our region — owned by multi-billion dollar fossil fuel corporations — to mitigate their pollution and invest in clean power, energy efficiency, building retrofits, and transportation improvements. This would create good-paying jobs right here at home while investing in our clean energy future. How do we do all this? Visit re-sources.org to learn more. There will be more public hearings before the end of 2019 to have your voice heard.

Local Watershed Issues

Climate change also means people’s access to water — and sufficient stream flows for salmon to survive — is growing uncertain. But there is an opportunity for Whatcom County to begin planning for this eventuality before water shortages become even more commonplace. This fall, there will be a public process as the state determines how much water new private wells in the Nooksack River watershed can use, and how we will offset that usage over the next 20 years.

Soon, the Department of Ecology will need to hear from you so their proposed 500-gallon-per-day limit for private wells goes into effect — a much-needed reduction from an excessive 3,000-gallon proposal. RE Sources is watching this issue closely and we will mobilize the community to balance water for fish, farms, and people in the coming months.

Among the most critical actions for our region right now is to stop Trump Administration efforts to rollback clean water standards and laws that will have direct and detrimental impacts to Washington’s waterbodies. RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. Alongside the five other Waterkeepers in Washington, North Sound Baykeeper fought to establish the existing water quality standards that Trump wants to scrap in favor of polluting industries’ profits. These standards, established on a state-by-state basis, inform the amount of pollution allowed to be discharged into the Salish Sea.

Rules like this need to protect public health, and should be hinged on how much fish people can safely eat without getting cancer or neurological damage from mercury, arsenic, PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), and more — especially indigenous people and Asian Pacific Islanders who tend to consume the most fish. After amassing thousands of public comments over the past month, our North Sound Baykeeper team will explore further legal action required to hold the line. We simply will not let our waters become so polluted that we can’t eat from them. There are many ways you can support this effort and the work of our North Sound Baykeeper.

I know Whatcom Watch readers want to do everything they can to protect the places and species we care so deeply about. We’re all looking to each other asking, “What is the most useful thing I can do with my limited time and resources?” One of the clearest ways you can take a stand and make a profound impact is by making your time and money do something truly valuable: support organizations who live and breathe these places, organizations who know the challenges and our region like the back of their hand.

Local organizations like RE Sources are the most well-equipped to fight for what’s in our own backyards — drinking water in Lake Whatcom, salmon in the Nooksack River, vibrant waterfronts in a post-industrial era, and Aquatic Reserve ecosystems at Cherry Point and Fidalgo Bay.

When the devil is in the details, and the chances to have your voice heard are buried in public meeting agenda packets, local groups like RE Sources can help connect you to them. This is the moment to make critical gains to protect the Salish Sea through stronger laws, and hold the line of resistance against Trump’s anti-environment agenda.

Let’s make the headlines of September 2020 about how people-power kept water clean, moved society toward carbon-free energy, rallied against government inaction, and stood up to powerful industries. Are you with me?


Take Action: Keep orca recovery efforts going strong!

posted Oct 23, 2019, 5:07 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Oct 25, 2019, 9:28 AM ]


Thank you for adding your voice to make sure Gov. Inslee's Orca Task Force work can continue, and ensuring it focuses on actions that will make the biggest waves for orca recovery.

Suggested language for your response to the Orca Task Force:

Dear Task Force Members & Governor Inslee:

Thank you for your focused time and dedication to recovering the endangered Southern Resident Orcas over the last 18 months. I am writing in strong support of the overall draft Southern Resident Orca Task Force Year 2 Report; however, I want to bring the following items to your attention: 

1. Please strengthen Recommendation 48 (net ecological-gain) to also account for restoring critical habitat and sensitive ecosystems from development that has already taken place, focus mitigation on a scale slightly smaller than watershed scale, and include forage fish to the creatures we are protecting alongside salmon and orcas. Below are some suggested edits.

Revise lines 1621-1624 to read:  “Adopt and implement incentives, policies, guidance, and regulations for previous development and future growth to prevent further degradation of critical habitat and sensitive ecosystems…”

Line 1632: change “larger watershed” to “sub-basin”, so the sentence now reads “Operate at a local site-specific scale and a sub-basin scale”.

Line 1634: Add “forage fish” to the creatures we are protecting, so the sentence will read, “Revise statutes to shift from a “no net loss” standard to a “net ecological gain” standard to better protect orcas, salmon, and forage fish.” 

2. Please move Recommendation 48 into the Prey section in the earlier sections of the report. The concept of net-ecological gain is not new and was discussed in the Prey Working Group of the Task Force last year. This recommendation is disconnected from the Prey focus area when it is buried under Population Growth.

3. I strongly support Option 2, Create a new Executive Level Team in the Governor’s Office, in the Life After the Task Force section of the report. Option 2 allows for the greatest level of public input and accountability across state agencies rather than one agency held responsible. 

4. Please provide clarity on which actions from Year 1 have not been fully implemented. I suggest creating a matrix of all of the recommendations (noting which are from Year 1 and 2) and include a status report for ease of reading. Think of this as a progress report that way decision-makers can easily understand what still needs attention.

[your name]
[city/town], WA

Community kayak tour: How do we make a healthier, more accessible Bellingham Bay?

posted Oct 7, 2019, 1:19 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Oct 7, 2019, 3:14 PM ]


By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist

Over this past year, the Southern Resident Orca population lost three family members, bringing the whole population to a solemn 73 as of the beginning of August 2019. Alongside many organizations and community members like you throughout the Salish Sea region, RE Sources advocated for new legislation this year to protect these revered marine mammals that thankfully became law. These laws will restore more than the Salish Sea’s orca — they will prevent oil spills, improve salmon habitat, and reduce toxic materials in products that harm children as well as orcas.

June is Orca Month, celebrated throughout Washington State for its 13th year to raise awareness about our iconic orca and health of the Salish Sea. To celebrate Orca Month and the groundbreaking new protections Washington put in place this year, RE Sources Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade and I led about 20 people on a tour of Bellingham Bay by kayak with the help of Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures and staff from Washington State Department of Ecology and the Port of Bellingham. Along the way, we highlighted the efforts to clean up the twelve toxic contaminated sites to help protect orca, salmon, and other marine organisms from being poisoned by contaminants left in the sediment from decades of waterfront industry.

Beginning the tour at Waypoint Park — Bellingham’s newest public park converted from a cleaned-up contaminated site— we talked about stormwater and its impacts on salmon and orca, as pollutants that build up on the city’s paved surfaces wash down into the bay. The Port of Bellingham has been taking several measures to make sure that stormwater pollution from Port property is minimized, including carefully planned drainage systems and developing an integrated pest management plan to limit the harms of pesticides on marine life.

We then paddled onward to Cornwall Beach. Port staff talked to community members about current projects and possible future uses of the shoreline, such as how the Aeration Stabilization Basin (ASB) was originally going to be turned into a marina, but now may be reimagined for other uses not yet decided on. At Cornwall Beach, Department of Ecology staff greeted kayakers and talked more about the Model Toxics Control Act — a law passed by citizen’s ballot initiative that guides how we clean up especially polluted places. While the group enjoyed a pizza dinner, Ecology gave an update on the progress of cleaning up the twelve toxic sites and turning them into functional places the whole community can benefit from.

What surprises most people is how long this cleanup process takes. Some cleanups take longer than others, but that’s because the process is a thorough one. It involves taking comprehensive chemical measurements, evaluating whether the cleanup’s cost provides proportionate benefit to human health and the environment, and choosing the best out of several possible cleanup action plans. Providing a cleaner, healthier, safer site for intended future uses while minimizing cost needs to be carefully considered, especially because there are twelve cleanup sites in Bellingham Bay alone that need some love, and over 13,000 throughout our state. It’s taken a long time, but we are finally seeing progress with the opening of Waypoint Park and businesses moving into the adjacent Granary Building. There’s still a ways to go, but it’s better than having an inaccessible waterfront filled with permanent brownfields — areas that remain so contaminated, they cannot be used for anything.

As our Bellingham Bay cleanup sites continue onward to their final cleanup stages, you can stay up to speed by following us on Facebook, getting email updates with actions you can take, and visiting RE Sources’ Public Comments and Events webpages for chances to have your voice heard and for upcoming tours of local waterways. Together, we can better protect our community from contaminants and make our waters safer for ourselves, for salmon, and for the orca.

This product is funded through a Public Participation Grant from the Department of Ecology.

Save Whatcom County money and plan for sea level rise now

posted Oct 3, 2019, 12:54 PM by Simon Bakke

 By Executive Director Shannon Wright. Originally published in The Northern Light, August 28th, 2019

Whatcom County shorelines are dynamic places, both in terms of vibrant, distinct communities as well as the diversity of natural habitats. And they face increasing threats.

While we might not realize it as we visit the region’s beaches, lakes and rivers this summer, our shorelines are under mounting pressure from sea level rise, climate change-strengthened storms and haphazard development in a rapidly-growing county. Decisive measures need to be taken to protect them and ensure a balanced approach to these areas in our changing environment. This fall may be Whatcom County’s best chance to do just that.

The Whatcom County Council is updating the county’s Shoreline Management Program (SMP) which governs activities within 200 feet of any type of shoreline – seashores, lakes, rivers, streams and some wetlands. If you do the math, that’s a huge portion of our coastal home. If done well, the SMP has the ability to safeguard the shorelines that are critical both for Whatcom County residents as well as the plants and animals who live here.

Whether or not we witness it, shorelines provide us all with invaluable services. These unique areas, where land and water meet, filter toxic substances from rain runoff. They are on the front lines of protecting homes, businesses and habitat – preventing erosion and moderating the impacts from flooding and storm surges. They provide public spaces for play and learning. They support small fish, like herring, that make up the base of the salmon and Southern Resident orca food chain (which is critical, as our local herring populations at Cherry Point have been in decline).

As it is currently written, however, the SMP is not quite up to snuff. It doesn’t take climate change data into account in spite of the scientific urgency to do so, nor does it include any means of determining if our current shoreline management techniques have been successful in protecting critical shoreline functions. These are two simple, but critical elements that could save our county millions of dollars down the road.

As a rule, we know the cost of prevention is far cheaper than the cost of mitigating or repairing problems that arise. Paying for flood damage, cleaning up contaminants, building seawalls – these are all taxpayer costs that can be avoided or greatly minimized by smart planning during this shoreline planning process.

In order for the county council to improve the plan to protect our shorelines, Whatcom County residents must call upon them to do so.

Council members need to hear that taxpayers support studying the efficacy of current and future shoreline management techniques. Will our shorelines continue to provide habitat for critical species? Will they continue filtering pollution in a natural manner (the most cost effective filtration system available)? Will they continue to be safe for public access? If we aren’t at least maintaining the value of our shorelines, then the county needs to take a serious look at how we can save money and let the shorelines do the work.

Second, we need county council to take the lead on protecting Whatcom County from impacts due to the emerging climate crisis, especially with a federal government denying the reality of climate science. They need to plan proactively for foreseeable, negative impacts on the all-too-immediate horizon from climate change.

We already know the likely impacts that are projected for our shorelines – the worst being several feet of sea level rise encroaching on buildings, and powerful storms putting them in harm’s way like never before. It makes financial sense to use Whatcom County residents’ tax dollars to address, prevent or minimize damages rather than remediate later.

If the county allows some kinds of development in areas we know will have higher seas nipping at its heels, emergency measures will happen on the taxpayer’s dime down the road – and the bill will be much, much higher.

Shorelines are already stressed in many areas. There have been massive impacts to habitat from docks, shoreline armoring (seawalls or bulkheads) and over-water structures that were allowed to be grandfathered in. The SMP is our county’s best chance to step up and stop even more damage to waterways that commercial and tribal fisheries, salmon and endangered orcas can’t exist without.

We need to ask Whatcom County to save us money, to save us the heartache of losing homes and habitat to rising seas, powerful storms and poorly-planned development. Whatcom County isn’t required to reevaluate the SMP again until 2024. We can’t wait that long.

The very beaches, lakes and rivers we all love to explore with our friends and families will also play a part in protecting us from the cost – and dangers – of living in the era of climate change. This is an opportunity for Whatcom County to ensure some common-sense protections for these valuable places and our safety and financial security decades into the future.

Inslee's Orca Task Force: What happened in year one, what's next

posted Sep 18, 2019, 1:06 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Sep 20, 2019, 4:23 PM ]

Southern Resident Orca J35, by Joan Poor

By Karlee Deatherage, Clean Water Policy Analyst | karleed@re-sources.org

When endangered Southern Resident Orca pods lost several family members in 2017 and 2018, bringing the population to a historic low, Governor Inslee convened the Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force, charged with developing a plan to keep this iconic species from extinction over its two-year tenure. They released a final set of Year 1 recommended actions in November 2018, and have only had a couple meetings in 2019 to solidify the state’s action plan — a vital step in making sure orcas have sufficient salmon to eat, reduced disturbance from loud vessels in Puget Sound, and fewer toxic pollutants entering the waterways they live and hunt in. 

I had a front row seat in the audience for the full-day, penultimate Southern Resident Orca Recovery Task Force meeting on September 9th in Port Angeles. This was a pivotal meeting for the future of how Washington State will keep up long-term efforts once the Task Force concludes at the end of November 2019. I was there to support policies that encourage net-gain of habitat and ecosystem functions (the no-net-loss mandate is currently not working), and to emphasize the need to improve streamflows for salmon in the face of population growth and climate change. (You can see it recorded here)

This was a critical meeting to attend: We needed to hold onto the momentum and urgency on the heels of a successful 2019 legislative session for salmon and orcas, and to advocate for which recommendations not completed in Year 1 should be in the Year 2 Report to the Governor. One of my friends, Mindy Roberts, on the Task Force informed me that the June meeting was poorly attended by the public and there was concern that public momentum was drifting. She urged me to attend. Thankfully there were roughly 50 people in the audience at this meeting continuing the drumbeat for action to recover our orcas and salmon. 

A couple salient examples of recommendations that have not yet been acted upon are the need to create incentives for redeveloping stormwater hot-spots that would cut pollution, or fully funding culvert projects to boost struggling salmon populations. Task Force member Joe Gaydos of the Sea Doc Society, stated that less than 70% of the Year 1 actions have been implemented — and this is not a success. Most of the inaction is a result of insufficient funding and the need for federal partners to act.

Year 1 recommendations focused on...
  1. The immediate actions we can take that will have an impact as soon as they’re implemented, or
  2. Actions we need to get a head start on now.
Year 2 is more focused on the long-term health of orcas in the face of climate change and population growth. 

My take-aways from the meeting

  • Orca Health is declining: 73 Southern resident orcas remain after the presumed deaths of three that have gone missing. The orca pods have been spotted predominantly in Canadian waters, which is unusual for the summer when they are typically found foraging west of San Juan Island.
  • There has been miscommunication on the Lower Snake River Dams stakeholder forum: Some Task Force members and members of the public expressed concern with the Lower Snake River Dam Stakeholder process set up by the Governor. They hoped for a forum or task force; however, the Governor has hired a team of consultants to interview key community stakeholders to create a report that will help inform the state’s position on the federal court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the dams.
  • Tribes appear frustrated with the Orca Task Force process: While they appreciate being at the table with other stakeholders, they asked the Governor last year for a formal government-to-government consultation process that runs parallel to the work of the Task Force.
  • We need a Net-gain of habitat policy in the face of ineffective “no net loss” policies: The no-net-loss mandate for ecosystem functions in the Growth Management Act, Shoreline Management Act, and other laws is not working to protect habitat for Chinook salmon and other species important for orcas. It is also not working to reduce pollution. Instead, a policy of net-gain is needed in the face of climate change and population growth.
  • We have to limit nutrients entering the Salish Sea: Excessive nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen can create low levels of dissolved oxygen, or dead zones, in Puget Sound. This can negatively impact the food web for orcas and will only be exacerbated by population growth and climate change. Ecology is currently looking at addressing excessive nutrient discharges from wastewater treatment plants – the largest contributors to nutrients in Puget Sound – by developing a Puget Sound Nutrients General Permit. A comment period is currently open on this idea.
  • We need to consider climate change impacts to vital habitat for the salmon food chain: In addition to finding ways to cut carbon and methane emissions, we need to consider how climate change impacts such as sea level rise and storm surges will disrupt and eliminate forage fish habitat. They need shorelines. Shorelines have one of two options - disappear with seawalls and bulkheads protecting property or they will migrate landward because of erosion. We will need strategies to identify the most appropriate areas for shorelines to migrate. Also, recommendations should consider how to make sure we have enough water in streams in the summer and fall for salmon spawning and reduce high, fast flows in the winter that can kill eggs and juvenile salmon.
  • The Task Force’s work will most likely continue into the future: Most members appear to support a hybrid approach for how Washington state continues to focus on orca recovery. This looks like a continuation of the Task Force; meeting once or twice per year to receive updates on implementation progress and adaptively manage those recommendations. This is different than going back to what we were doing before (disjointed) and creating a brand new governing body. The hybrid approach is cheaper than the latter and more effective than going back to the status quo.

The final meeting of the Orca Task Force is on October 7th. At this meeting, the Task Force will provide feedback on the draft Year 2 Recommendations and receive a briefing on recommendations related to our region’s population growth. Stay tuned for the draft recommendations report and an opportunity to weigh in with comments! We’ll have suggestions to help guide you through the comment period to make the process as simple and quick as possible. Make sure you’re opted in to our E-newsletters to have ways to take action delivered to you!

You can view the entirety of the Task Force meeting:

Morning session | Afternoon session | Task Force webpage to past meeting minutes and other materials

Water Rights 101: How do we allocate water in Washington?

posted Sep 11, 2019, 12:30 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Sep 11, 2019, 2:07 PM ]


Nobody truly owns Washington’s water.

Water – whether underground or in lakes, streams, or frozen in the mountains – is owned by the people of Washington state and managed by the Department of Ecology (Ecology). It’s a public resource and can’t be owned by one individual or group. People or groups may be granted the right to use water for a defined purpose, in a specific place, a specific amount, and drawn from a specific location. The government doesn’t own water, and when they allow someone to use it, that user doesn’t suddenly “own” that water either.

The way Ecology issues the right to use water is based on the legal doctrine of Prior Appropriation (or “first in time, first in right”) which means people who started using water first are senior to those after them. During water shortages, more junior rights may be diminished to fulfill senior rights first.

Every time someone wants to start using water, their water right must all pass a four-part test:
  • Water must be physically AND legally available;
  • Water must be used beneficially — serving a productive purpose, like for drinking or watering crops, and cannot be wasted;
  • Water use must be in the best interest of the public;
  • Water use must not impair other existing water uses.

Tribes have the longest-standing water rights — which are at risk.

Treaty Tribes in Washington have the most senior water rights because they have been on these lands for much longer than settlers. Tribes have water rights both within and outside of their reservations. The off-reservation water rights are designated to leave enough water remaining in rivers and streams for healthy salmon populations. This water right is tied to their treaty-given right to fish, and is especially important when salmon return to spawn in the summer when water shortages are common.

However, most Tribes in Washington do not have their water rights quantified. Ecology doesn’t know exactly how much water each Tribe should legally have access to.

Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe requested a federal adjudication — the legal process of determining what their water rights are — of their off-reservation water rights in 2011. No action has been taken on that request. Tribal water rights can also be determined at the state level by adjudicating a whole watershed (including all the streams and groundwater that flow into a major water body). To do this, though, Tribes must waive their sovereign immunity (their government's right to consent to being sued) and participate in the legal process at the Superior Court level. Without quantifying off-reservation water rights, there is no way to enforce or protect Tribal water rights.

Water bodies can have their own water rights.

Streams, lakes, and other surface waters can also have their own water rights. These are known as Instream Flows, which are “minimum water flows or levels for streams, lakes or other public waters for the purposes of protecting fish, game, birds or other wildlife resources, or recreational or aesthetic values of said public waters whenever it appears to be in the public interest to establish the same.” (RCW 90.22.010) Ecology sets instream flows through a scientific process for particular reaches of streams and rivers or lakes.

The Nooksack River watershed (Water Resource Inventory Area 1) was the first Instream Flow set in the state. When the rule was finalized in 1986, most of the Nooksack watershed closed permanently or seasonally to new water rights. A common misconception is that the Nooksack Instream Flow Rule must be met, and we’re breaking the law if it’s not met. Instead, it is an aspirational goal of what flows should be during certain times of the year for certain stream reaches. Instream flow rules often draw a line in the sand to not allowing new water rights. Flow levels for the Nooksack and its stream reaches can be found here.

Do I need a water right for the water I currently use or want to start using?

The answer is typically no. You don’t need a water right...
  • If you receive your water from a utility, water district, shared water system (Group A or B water systems), or water association.
Or in these instances of groundwater withdrawals:
  • If your house is served by a single, private well (or is on a well serving up to 6 nearby homes) that was put to use before 2018, then you may use up to 5,000 gallons per day. If after 2018, then you may use up to 3,000 gallons per day over an annual average.
  • If you use a well for industrial or commercial purposes (like farming), you may use up to 5,000 gallons per day.
  • If you use a well for stock water, there is no limit.

You do need water rights if you use water directly from rivers, lakes, springs or from the ground (aside from the exceptions listed above). Ecology has a water right database where you can verify if your property has a water right.

Questions? Contact Karlee Deatherage, Clean Water Policy Analyst at KarleeD@re-sources.org.

(photos by Brett Baunton)

Send an email to Whatcom County Council: Ensure our shorelines are protected!

posted Sep 6, 2019, 9:23 AM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Sep 6, 2019, 12:32 PM ]

The most effective public comments are specific and personal. You can copy and paste this sample text for your email, and add a personal comment about why you care about this issue.

Send to: council@co.whatcom.wa.us

Send by: Thursday, September 10th

Dear Whatcom County Council,

I am writing to ask that you move forward with an evaluation of the health of our shorelines and whether rules that are intended to protect them are truly achieving no-net-loss of ecological functions. The County is required to monitor the effectiveness of the Shoreline Master Program (SMP), including the 2007 Restoration Plan, to assess whether net-loss of ecological functions and processes is occurring. 

With a changing climate and population growth Whatcom County must know whether our current rules, including restoration plans, are adequate in at least meeting no-net-loss. We can’t afford to wait until 2024 (or later) to assess these critical habitat functions when herring, salmon, orcas and other species are in decline. 

Thank you,

Your Name

City, zip code


Thank you for taking action in support of the habitat salmon and orcas depend on, and the shorelines our communities depend on! Read more about the Shoreline Management Program in Whatcom County.

A Tale of Two Scarcities: How droughts in Whatcom plays out for salmon

posted Aug 14, 2019, 12:28 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Aug 14, 2019, 1:27 PM ]

January through June 2019 was the eighth driest on record for Washington since 1895, with nearly half the state in an official drought emergency following a hot, dry spring and low snowpack in the mountains. Our region has gotten some rain in July and August, which has helped, but haven't made up for the extremely dry winter and spring — just like a cold snap doesn't reverse the trend of global heating, a few days of rain doesn't reverse a drought months in the making.

The term “drought” is thrown around a lot, but to the state of Washington, "drought" means when “the water supply for a geographical area or for a significant portion of a geographical area is below seventy-five percent of normal and the water shortage is likely to create undue hardships for various water uses and users.” (RCW 43.83B.400). The Nooksack River basin was part of the May 20, 2019 drought declaration from Governor Inslee — a stark reminder that the rainy Pacific Northwest is not immune from water worries.

Each year, regardless of official drought declarations, the Nooksack River tributaries become water-scarce in the summer and early fall when rain tapers off and when farms, fish, and people need it most. And this type of drought is likely to become more commonplace as the climate heats up and Whatcom County’s population rises. We need to prioritize solutions like efficient water use in the summer and fall, so a portion of the Nooksack’s water can stay in the streams to keep them cool and flowing for salmon.

Dive into two recent droughts

How is 2019 shaping up compared to the drought declared in 2015, when Washington had another historic drought emergency declaration? Long story short, low streamflows and high water temperatures in our rivers and creeks are not quite as bad as 2015. The Nooksack River and its creeks hit lows in early March of this year, similar to 2015 (see the discharge (flow) graphs below). In 2019, we had a few bouts of rain during the summer, keeping streamflows and water temperatures from being as dangerous.

It’s important to look at several key spots along the Nooksack River to get an overall snapshot of its health. This piece takes a location-by-location look at several years’ worth of streamflow data at five key spots along the river, which are good indicators of how well this year's flows measure up to the water rights reserved for the river itself (the “instream flow rule” set by the Department of Ecology). That means these spots are also good indicators of how favorable that piece of the river is for spawning salmon. One intriguing finding is that low flows in the Nooksack River at two of these spots, Ferndale and Cedarville, had below-average flows even during the rainy season in 2017 and 2018 for reasons unknown — yet several of its tributaries were normal. Data like this tells us we need to keep an eye on why this is happening and whether it is causing an impact to salmon migrating upstream to spawn.

Read on for a location-by-location look at several years of stream flow at five key spots along the Nooksack River, which give us a snapshot of the health of Whatcom’s most important waterway for salmon, agriculture, and some people’s drinking water.

Want to help balance our water supply in the face of increasing water uncertainty? Email Policy Analyst Karlee Deatherage, karleed@re-sources.org, and see what you can do.

South Fork Nooksack River at Saxon Bridge

The South Fork of the Nooksack River originates west of the Twin Sisters mountain range and flows through the communities of Acme and Van Zandt to meet with the Middle and North Forks in Deming. Unlike the North and Middle Forks, the South Fork fed by snowmelt, natural springs, and groundwater rather than glaciers. It has significant low streamflow and water temperature issues which pose great risk to the many salmon that call the South Fork home.

The South Fork is home to several vital salmon populations: Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed Spring Chinook, Pink, Coho and Chum salmon and Summer Steelhead.  Salmon at this spot:
  • Spring chinook (“Threatened” under the ESA) - enters the river beginning in February up until August; spawning in tributaries to the South Fork can begin in July through October
  • Pink - enters the river beginning in June or July through September; spawning in tributaries to the South Fork can begin in October through February. 
  • Coho - enters the river beginning in July up until January; spawning in tributaries to the South Fork can begin in October through February.
  • Chum - enters the river beginning in August through January; spawning in tributaries to the South Fork can begin in October and continues through February.
  • Summer steelhead - enters the river beginning in April up until October; spawning in tributaries to the South Fork can begin in February through April.
What the flow graphs tell us: Flows are slightly above 2015 low flows, but below normal years. So far, one day has exceeded 70 degrees fahrenheit for water temperature unlike multiple spikes in 2015. Gage height appears to be average.

Nooksack River at Cedarville

The Nooksack River at Cedarville is just downstream of where the three forks (North, Middle, and South) converge just outside of Nugent’s Corner. Flows and depth are pretty significant. Most salmon and steelhead don’t spawn here as they’re making their way to certain tributaries of the three forks; however, Chum salmon occasionally spawn in the mainstem Nooksack. Salmon at this spot:
  • Chum - enters the river beginning in August through January; spawning in the mainstem can begin in October and continue through February.

What the flow graphs tell us: Flows, temperature, and gage height are fairly average for this time of year.

Fish Trap Creek at Front Street, Lynden

Fish Trap Creek originates in lowland British Columbia, south of the Fraser River and makes it way through farmland and the City of Lynden and enters the Nooksack just southwest of town, just upstream of Bertrand Creek. Fishtrap Creek often faces challenges with high water temperatures and low streamflows. Salmon at this spot:
  • Chum - enters the river beginning in August through January; spawning in Fishtrap can begin in October and continues through February.
What the flow graphs tell us: Flows, temperature, and gage height are fairly average for this time of year. Flows and gage height in late July and early August 2015 were slightly better than 2019.

Bertrand Creek at International Boundary

Bertrand Creek originates in lowland British Columbia, south of the Fraser River and makes it way through farmland and enters the mainstem Nooksack River just west of the confluence of Fishtrap Creek. Like Fishtrap Creek, Bertrand Creek has serious problems with high water temperatures and low streamflows. Salmon at this spot:
  • Chum - enters the river beginning in August through January; spawning in Bertrand can begin in October and continues through February.
What the flow graphs tell us: Gage height and temperature are fairly average for this time of year. Flows are below average years, but above the 2015 low flows.

Mainstem Nooksack River at Ferndale

The mainstem Nooksack River at Ferndale is essentially the "salmon highway" (for spring and fall Chinook, pink, coho, and chum; plus winter and summer steelhead). Spawning does not typically take place here. Temperature and streamflows are typically not a concern; however, water temperatures were close to lethal (above the 20 degree celsius mark) for salmon a handful of days in 2015.

What the flow graphs tell us: Flows and gage height are slightly above average this time of year over the last 5 years; however, temperature appears to be creeping above the 5 year average yet below the 2015 water temperature highs.


Tips for being a responsible beach visitor

posted Aug 9, 2019, 10:56 AM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Aug 12, 2019, 5:45 PM ]

Have you ever gone to the beach and been appalled by what you saw? Maybe it’s someone mindlessly littering, or the careless way someone picks up a crab and throws it back on the ground. It’s easy to forget that hundreds of species rely on beaches and intertidal zones, but we must remember that this is their home. Here are some tips to follow as you share in enjoying these incredible living systems. 

  1. Be mindful when you turn over rocks! Try not to turn over rocks larger than your head as they are specialized habitats for many marine organisms. If you do turn over small rocks to get a better look at what lives underneath, always make sure to put the rock back exactly where you found it! Organisms live under rocks for a reason: they provide shelter and shade from the sweltering sun that can quickly desiccate (dry out) marine organisms. 
  2. Take care when you walk on the beach! Many rocks are covered with ulva, a green seaweed that can be quite slippery when walking on. Make sure you have sure footing so you don’t slip and fall. You also want to make sure that you aren’t trampling any critters beneath your feet!
  3. Take photos and leave only footprints! This might seem obvious, but it’s not ok to take any marine critters or organisms out of their natural habitat.
  4. Pack it in and pack it out: Picnics on the beach are fun, but garbage isn’t! Make sure to pack everything out that you brought in. In doing so, you’ll be preventing more pollution in the aquatic environment. re-sources.org/events
  5. Carefully touch marine organisms! It is ok to carefully and gently touch marine organisms, although make sure you wet your hands before doing so. Make sure you don’t move the organism from its original spot!

Remember that when you visit the beach, you’re also visiting the home of thousands of marine organisms. Following these beach etiquette tips will make you great beach visitor; the critters will appreciate it too!

By Lilya Jaeren, Americorps Aquatic Reserves Monitoring and Stewardship Coordinator

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