Sustainable Agriculture in Whatcom County

Whatcom County’s waters are a precious resource. Countless babbling streams feed rivers like the Nooksack, which in turn feed the sparkling waters of Puget Sound. Clean water is the foundation of our economy, the health of our communities and our way of life. RE Sources is dedicated to preventing pollution of those precious waters — to protect your right to clean drinking water, to protect salmon and orca populations, and to ensure a thriving, balanced economy.
As Washington farms grow and modernize, measures that protect neighbors’ rights to clean water must grow along with them. Farming is an important part of Whatcom County’s heritage and economy. And, just like any other valued industry, its profitability should not come at the cost of clean water for the rest of the county.

Our commitment to protecting Whatcom County’s water from manure pollution remains unshaken, and we will continue to work without malice and in good faith to bring our community together. 

The impacts of poorly managed manure.

The cleanliness of waterways across the state and those that feed Puget Sound continue to be compromised by pollution from many sources, including manure. Manure pollution can come from farms of all sizes if waste from animals is not managed properly. Whatcom County has the largest number of dairy feedlots called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Because CAFOs have large numbers of animals they are especially of concern. Although there are approximately 1,200 CAFOs in the state, only 14 are required to operate with a permit to discharge pollution. That means the other 1,186 CAFOs could be polluting our waterways with no oversight. 

Medium and large CAFOs in Whatcom County generate 2700+ tons of manure each day (according to a 2016 report). The waste generated at these facilities is not treated. It is customarily stored in earthen lagoons and applied to farmland as fertilizer. When not properly monitored and managed, manure gets into our creeks and rivers and groundwater, causing grave environmental, public health, and economic problems. In Puget Sound, manure pollution has been linked to shellfish bed closures and ocean acidification, perhaps this region’s most imminent environmental and economic catastrophe. Already, acidification has wiped out billions of oyster larvae in the Puget Sound; has impacted pteropods, which are critical food for birds and fish, and poses risks for other important sea life, including red king crab and wild salmon.

Agriculture operations should be held to the same standards as other industries.

Most industries that have the potential to discharge pollution are required to have permits, but enforcement of clean water laws for CAFOs has been sorely neglected. When rain-saturated fields are sprayed with manure, or manure lagoons leak, pollution seeps into the soil and contaminates groundwater, and runoff flows into irrigation ditches or creeks that flow into the Puget Sound. 

This is unacceptable. With all of the pressures on Puget Sound and the rivers and streams that feed it, we need strong safeguards against pollution from all sources. 

It’s up to us, the citizens of Washington State, to stand up and demand that Ecology is adequately funded to issue and enforce a strong and protective permit. We all depend on clean, safe water to support the health of salmon, orcas, and other native species. We cannot afford to succumb to Big Ag’s powerful lobbyists who seek to get a pass on pollution. Clean water is essential for us all. 

Economic stability and environmental protection

Too often the job of protecting clean water is presented as a false choice between economic stability and environmental protection – but the two are actually intertwined. RE Sources doesn’t believe our economy and our way of life could possibly thrive without clean water. And we’re not alone. In the BlueGreen Waterfront Coalition, we work alongside labor and social justice groups to advocate for a waterfront that is free of toxic materials, provides good jobs and boosts our economy. We sit down every month with tribes, farmers and scientists to plan for restored shellfish harvests in Portage Bay. And in the Whatcom Food Network, we are building partnerships with other groups that are committed to making Whatcom County a shining example of how to create a just, coordinated and thriving local food system. We work together because we all agree on this one thing: healthy people, clean water and economic prosperity are inseparable.

Preserving Farmland

RE Sources has long been a champion of local agriculture and family farms, advocating for stronger agricultural lands protection in the County Comprehensive Plan. 
We have worked with our supporters to collaborate with members of the local agricultural community, from WRIA-1 to nitrate pollution monitoring, from preventing urban sprawl into ag zones to enhancing lowland agricultural streams and riverbanks for wildlife, people, and water quality. We have also been involved in regional cooperative efforts to preserve and enhance ag lands and rural communities, and to identify threats to those values and the quality of life in our state.

Our work is not confined to the farming community, the dairy community, or Whatcom County. Because water and air pollution respect no boundaries, the Department of Ecology CAFO permit is a statewide permit. Appealing a weak statewide permit is actually a vote of confidence for Whatcom farmers and those in agriculture across the state who take water quality very seriously. In fact, RE Sources is confident that family farmers in Whatcom County are committed to protecting and improving water and air quality for us, our children, and generations to come. Sadly, that is not the case for many CAFOs across the state, and thus the need exists for a strong and consistent permit process to protect public health and the environment. 

We can have clean and plentiful water, a strong local food system, a vibrant local economy, and preserve farmland. But it takes work to keep it that way. RE Sources is committed to holding respectful conversation, seeking collaborative solutions, and partnering with all stakeholders to find a common solution.

Quick links for more info on Washington's CAFO permit and livestock pollution.

“State of the Sound: Progress in Whatcom County, but poor marks for the Salish Sea”
published Nov 2017 in the Cascadia Weekly.
"As the number of endangered Southern Resident orca whales continues to decline and Puget Sound Chinook salmon remain threatened, officials say the need to save the two species is becoming dire. A leading theory is the whales are starving because they cannot find enough Chinook salmon, the endangered fish that the resident orcas eat almost exclusively. Concerns are increasing that the iconic whales are on a path to extinction."

"2017 State of the Sound"
report by Puget Sound Partnership, Nov 2017. 
"The spawning population sizes of Chinook salmon are dangerously below federal recovery goals and are not improving. As of September 2017, the Southern Resident killer whale population has only 76 individuals; recovery depends on increasing its main prey, Chinook salmon; reducing the load of toxins entering Puget Sound; and minimizing the impacts and risks of vessel traffic."

“It takes a team effort to keep Whatcom County’s water clean”
published Sept 2017 in the Bellingham Herald.
"Our business leaders recognize the connection between clean water and prosperity as well. Where would Whatcom County be without our farms, our fish companies, our breweries and restaurants, our shellfish harvesters, our recreation and tourism businesses? Our economy could not exist without clean water – it’s the backbone of who we are."

"Fecal matters: It's time to bring balance and fairness to how we protect our water resources" published April 2017 in the Cascadia Weekly.
"Last month, a berm failed at a dairy farm in Yakima Valley. Thousands of gallons of manure-contaminated water flooded nearby homes, rising a foot and a half before receding. In one video, a resident wades in water the color of chocolate milk—water polluted with fecal coliform, E. coli, and nitrates from manure on nearby fields that flooded when the berm failed. For a week, residents couldn’t use their tap water to drink, wash dishes or bathe. Water pollution like this threatens our drinking water, shellfish beds, rivers, and beaches in communities across our state."

"Pollution or Profit? The true cost of doing business"
published April 2017 in the Whatcom Watch.
"No industry should compromise the availability or cleanliness of the land, air, and water we all depend on to live. We believe all industry must be held to the same standards, and responsible for the pollution they produce — no matter how powerful or valuable the industry. It is possible to maintain a healthy, viable business without polluting the water we all must share. It’s been proven by willing farmers for decades. We must find a way."

RE Sources Board letter to Whatcom Family Farmers
(April 2017). 
"At the public policy level, RE Sources has long been a champion of local agriculture and family farms, advocating for stronger agricultural lands protection in the County Comprehensive plan. We and our supporters have participated in collaborative processes with members of the agricultural community, from WRIA-1 to nitrate pollution monitoring, from preventing urban sprawl into ag zones to enhancing lowland agricultural streams and riverbanks for wildlife, people, and water quality. We have also been involved in regional cooperative efforts to preserve and enhance ag lands and rural communities, and to identify threats to those values and the quality of life in our state."

“Environmental groups challenge Ecology’s new permits for industrial dairies”
(Feb 2017). "The permits fail to include basic water quality monitoring requirements and fail to require best-available technology for CAFOs such as synthetic manure lagoon liners, which prevent pollution from manure leaking into groundwater. The appeal also alleges the permits lack necessary standards to ensure compliance with state and federal water quality laws: the state-only permit authorizes groundwater discharges and removes the power granted to citizens under federal law to defend their clean water rights if dangerous pollution from CAFOs threatens water quality."

"Environmental groups respond to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) final permit"
(Jan 2017).
he waste produced by the CAFO industry is vast. The more than 260,000 adult dairy cows in Washington state produce over 26 million pounds of manure each day collectively. Too much of this manure enters Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems. The Sumas-Blaine Aquifer in north Whatcom County, home to numerous dairy farms, is the major drinking water source for up to 27,000 residents. This new permit ignores Ecology’s own determination that confirms nitrate loading due to over-application of manure from CAFOs “contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination.”

RE Sources official CAFO permit comment letter submitted to Ecology
(Aug 2016). "RE Sources believes that we can have viable farms and clean water. Along with these comments, we express our dedication to working with local farmers focusing first on those farms that have the most work to do to address water quality impacts. Phasing in new technologies over time and exploring reasonable approaches to groundwater monitoring makes a lot of sense economically for the farmer while protecting water quality. We also want to work with the agricultural community to research and explore funding and financial assistance options for implementing any potential permit requirements."

"Poop in Puget Sound is everybody’s problem; still time to tell Ecology what you think"
published Aug 2016 in the Bellingham Herald.
"We want to see job growth in agriculture and a thriving local food economy. These are not either/or decisions. The problems we face are complex, interconnected and vast, but our county is full of savvy, innovative and compassionate citizens with the skills to address these problems. While advocating for changes to the draft permit to better protect our streams, rivers and drinking water, our clean water team is committed to working with the agriculture community to phase in new technologies and help address the costs of implementation."

"Fecal Matters: Ecology is writing rules for agricultural pollution"
published July 2016 in the Cascadia Weekly.
"As Puget Sound’s degradation continues, recovery efforts need drastic transformation. A solution scaled to the problem requires an increased commitment from governing agencies to implement, and enforce protective measures. The waters of the state are shared by us all, including the salmon, orcas, and other native species. The [CAFO] permit is critical—it authorizes industrial agriculture operations that confine animals to discharge pollution (manure) into waters of the state — and it sets limits and management practices for those discharges."

"Manure and Groundwater Quality"
Department of Ecology, June 2016.
"There are concerns about impacts to groundwater quality from manure generated at animal production facilities (concentrated animal feeding operations; CAFOs). If manure is not properly managed, it can adversely affect groundwater quality. Research indicates that this typically occurs when manure is applied in amounts greater than crops can use, manure is applied when crops are not growing, manured fields are over-irrigated, or manure is stored in lagoons not constructed to a recognized standard."

"Agricultural Pollution in Puget Sound: Inspiration to Change Washington’s Reliance on Voluntary Incentive Programs to Save Salmon"
 white paper by Western Environmental Law Center, April 2016.
"In the National Water Quality Inventory released by the EPA, 'agriculture nonpoint source pollution was the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and lakes, the second largest source of impairment to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and groundwater.' It is well documented that agriculture is a major contributor to nonpoint source pollution in Washington state."

"Portage Bay Shellfish Protection District Shellfish Recovery Plan"
"The Portage Bay Initial Closure Response Strategy (1998) focused on reducing fecal coliform bacteria from agriculture, on-site septic system, sewage treatment plant, and stormwater runoff sources.
Due to elevated bacteria levels, 5 of 12 marine monitoring stations in Portage Bay were described as “Threatened” and 2 of 12 were described as sites “Of Concern” in DOH’s 2012 Annual Growing Area Review (Schultz 2013)."

"Treaty Rights At Risk: Ongoing Habitat Loss, the Decline of the Salmon Resource, and Recommendations for Change"
A report from the Treaty Indian Tribes in Western Washington, July 2011. 
"Stopping habitat degradation is the cornerstone of salmon recovery, but habitat is still declining. According to the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan, protecting existing habitat is the most important action needed in the short term. Despite this commitment, NMFS’ 2010 assessment of the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan declared that habitat is still declining and protection efforts need improvement."
Fact sheet summarizing 30 years of nitrate studies in the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer. Department of Ecology, 2010. "Since the 1980s, several studies have been conducted... indicating that the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer has some of the most widespread and elevated nitrate contamination in Washington State. This is problematic because groundwater from the Sumas-Blaine Aquifer is the main drinking water source for roughly 18,000 to 27,000 people in northern Whatcom County."
"Nooksack River Watershed Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load," a report from Ecology, June 2010. "Water quality data collected in the Nooksack watershed does not show a definite pattern of seasonal variation. Bacteria violations occur during all seasons and under all kinds of climatic conditions...The Nooksack River is considered to be the major source of bacterial contamination to the Portage Bay shellfish harvest area, but a complete TMDL evaluation of the bay was not performed."
Sanitary Survey of Portage Bay," report from the WA Department of Health in 1997. "Although Portage Bay is currently classified as an Approved commercial shellfish growing area, a portion of the bay along the southeastern Lummi peninsula shore was voluntarily closed to shellfish harvest by the Lummi Nation on December 10, 1996, to protect public health. This closure was... because of elevated fecal coliform levels in water samples"