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.

November 2019 offers a critical chance to advocate for policies that will help low flows in the Nooksack River. Washington State will decide how to increase streamflows in accordance with the 2018 Streamflow Restoration Act, and your input will be valuable. Make sure you get our e-newsletters so you get clear, direct ways to take action delivered to your inbox.

With Whatcom County's population anticipated to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years, RE Sources advocates for thoughtfully and collaboratively managing our water resources as laid out in the county's 2016 Comprehensive Plan update. This includes quantifying water usage throughout the county to promote water conservation, connecting land use and development decisions with water availability, working with the shellfish and farming sectors to protect water quality, and more.

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 The situation may be even more dire than we realize — this minimum flow was developed with outdated data in the 1980s, and may underestimate how much water salmon actually need to make it up tributaries to spawn.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. ( 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

We asked community members from across Whatcom for their thoughts on our water supply. Read what we learned from over 650 residents on our Clean Water blog.

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.

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 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:

Get involved:

To volunteer or learn more about getting involved in the Environmental Caucus, email Karlee Deatherage, Clean Water policy Analyst, at

Other Important Links

RE Sources' work on the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan

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