Balancing Water Supply in Whatcom County


Our water supply is finite, even in the Pacific Northwest where it can rain for days on end some parts of the year. When July rolls around, however, the rain almost completely stops. Those gorgeous summer and early fall days are when our rivers and creeks struggle to meet flows high enough to keep spawning salmon alive, and can even have too little water for people in kayaks or canoes. It’s also, unfortunately, the time of year people use the most water.


We advocate for a process to rebalance water usage that takes into account all water users: People, farms, and fish. But right now, the balance is tipped in a way that puts our salmon’s lives -- as well as people and orca whales that rely on salmon -- in danger. 

The problem: Lack of data, lack of water

When stream flows dwindle, the remaining water gets too hot for salmon, holds too little oxygen, and contains higher concentrations of bacteria and pollutants. Over the past 30 years, more than half of the days from July through October fell below the minimum flow salmon need to survive, and many days were far below (many tributaries are closed to new withdrawals because they don't have enough water). The situation may be even more dire than we realize -- this minimum flow was developed with outdated data in the 1980s, and may underestimate how much water salmon actually need to make it up tributaries to spawn. A vast amount of water used is not on meters, so we don’t have a full picture of how much (and where) Whatcom County’s water is used.

But we do know that the Nooksack and its tributaries are too low in the summer to support salmon like the endangered Chinook, one of our most treasured species and economic drivers. (https://www.whatcomcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/4765 pg. 15)

The future of our water supply in Whatcom County is uncertain. We’re seeing unpredictable snowpack levels, declining rainfall in the spring and summer, earlier snowmelt some years, and a steadily increasing population. That means more stress on our rivers and creeks, and more difficult salmon recovery in the Nooksack River, where much of our county’s surface water flows. It could set up the community for conflicts over water. Nobody likes uncertainty, especially about something as fundamental as their access to clean water.

It’s time we gathered more information and started working on fair, equitable, and realistic solutions. People, farms, and salmon can all benefit if we face this issue as a community, and everyone needs to do their part.

The solution: In your home, in the community

Whatcom County is at a critical juncture for how we manage our water supply. The state legislature passed a bill in January 2018 called the Streamflow Restoration Act. The legislation requires Whatcom County to update the Nooksack watershed plan to offset the anticipated water use of future growth in rural areas. The end result must increase streamflows in the Nooksack River and its tributary creeks.

The Nooksack watershed plan update from Whatcom County must be submitted in February 2019 to the state. This is your opportunity to voice your opinion before the state finalizes the plan and rulemaking. Public meetings are held with the WRIA-1 Planning Unit on the fourth Wednesday of every month at 6pm at the Whatcom County Public Works Building, Garden Conference Room. Schedules are posted here.

To stay in the loop on the evolving Nooksack Watershed Plan and other ways to get involved, email Clean Water Program Manager Ander Russell at anderr@re-sources.org. RE Sources is a member of the Environmental Caucus on the Planning Unit, and we provide administrative support to the caucus.

As an individual, you can be part of the water supply solution: keep an eye on how much water you use by checking your meter or monthly utility bill. The average person uses about 100 gallons per day. If you use more than that, consider incorporating small changes like fixing leaks, taking shorter showers, and doing full loads of laundry. If you water a garden or landscaping in summer, avoid watering in mid day, and consider installing drip irrigation, adding a timer to your watering system, or mulching plants during midsummer, and/or installing a rainwater catchment system off your roof to supplement your outdoor water needs. You can find more tips here: https://ecology.wa.gov/About-us/Get-involved/What-you-can-do/Water-conservation

Get involved:

Understanding Whatcom Water Use

To volunteer or learn more about getting involved in the Environmental Caucus, email Krista Rome, Clean Water Organizer, at kristar@re-sources.org

Other Important Links

Learn more about Water Rights in Washington
Video produced by Ecology
Nooksack watershed & plan update website


Simple map of our local Water Resource Inventory Area, WRIA 1 (from WA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife):