Statement: As climate changes, Nooksack River water usage recommended for adjudication and future assessment by Washington state

October 8, 2020

Media contact: Ander Russell, RE Sources Senior Environmental Advocate,, 360-733-8307 ext. 212

As climate changes, Nooksack River water usage recommended for adjudication and future assessment by Washington state

Whatcom County, Wash. — To ensure there is enough water into the future for salmon fisheries, farms, homes and businesses, the Washington state Department of Ecology proposed a legal review of all water usage in the Nooksack watershed, called an adjudication, on Friday. RE Sources supports this proposal.

The Nooksack’s lowest stream flows are in the summer when both people and fish need water most. (Brett Baunton / Wild Nooksack)

Currently, most water from the Nooksack is already legally “spoken for,” yet the state doesn’t actually know how much water usage is legal. Climate change and increased demand for water locally means there is often not enough water left in the river for fish, and the people who depend on salmon fisheries, in the dry summer months. An adjudication is a thorough analysis of a river system to make sure everyone who needs water from it —individuals, cities, farms, and the fish living there— is getting the water they’re legally entitled to.

“There is enough water in the Nooksack watershed to meet the community’s needs, so long as we don’t treat it like the Wild West. As our population grows and climate change leaves less water in Whatcom’s biggest waterway, it’s better for everyone who relies on the Nooksack River to know — for certain — how big a slice of the water-rights pie they have. This process brings Tribes, public and domestic water providers, farmers, and state officials to the table,” said Ander Russell, senior environmental advocate at RE Sources. “If we can’t resolve the challenges of managing water now, how will we do it in the future when there is even less winter snowpack feeding the river in the summer?”

Knowing exactly who has rights to how much water is a vital baseline for making choices about this shared resource. Without an adjudication, Ecology cannot properly regulate between water users that have actual water rights or just water claims — essentially unverified water rights. To protect Tribal treaty rights and struggling salmon in increasingly dry summers, we need a thorough review of how precious water is being used from the Nooksack.

RE Sources also supports the developing settlement concept being put forward by Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu. We are hopeful that locally led settlement talks could complement an adjudication and possibly shorten the process if successful.

From Ecology’s September 2020 Water Resources Adjudication Assessment Legislative Report: “Ecology faces significant difficulties regulating water use in the Nooksack watershed, where there is unresolved and widespread noncompliance with water law. Water users, including Tribes, all face uncertainty about their own legal rights and vulnerability to each other’s potential claims.”

Learn more about watershed adjudication on our website and Ecology’s website.


Photo: Brett Baunton / Wild Nooksack