Where we stand on Nooksack River adjudication

An update regarding the Nooksack River adjudication of water rights. | July 13, 2021

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Agriculture is an essential element of Whatcom County’s heritage and economy. The waters of the Nooksack watershed are a crucial lifeline sustaining salmon runs, the lifeways of Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, as well as farms, rural areas, towns and cities. We believe that with informed, balanced and fair water use, the Nooksack system can continue to meet all of these needs well into the future.

In April of this year we asked county decision makers to prioritize funding from the state to further technical work that will be essential to lay the foundation for both adjudication and solutions to address the outcomes of adjudication. This was encapsulated in the budget proviso approved by the legislature and signed by the Governor in May 1.

In recent weeks we have participated in conversations with the County Executive as well as the consultants who will be leading the collaborative process over the next two years, and they have provided an initial sense of a pre-adjudication process or “collaborative solutions table.” We have also taken into consideration the concerns local agriculture groups have expressed to RE Sources about adjudication. With these specifics all in mind, we would support a collaborative process over the next two years if all interested parties, including Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, move to support the process with the hope that this advances sound solutions for the watershed.

In parallel, RE Sources will continue to draw the public’s and policy makers’ attention to the fact that climate change is here in Whatcom County, and the impacts are growing. This reality must be treated as the backdrop for any and all solutions for the watershed. The 2015 statewide drought provided a preview of what we can expect into the future as climate change impacts increase. That year, agriculture in Washington state saw $633-$733 million in losses 2.

In addition, some Lower Nooksack tributaries, which are fed by rainwater and groundwater, already experience low summer and fall streamflows that cannot support salmon returning to spawn. The South Fork Nooksack supports spring Chinook salmon, a threatened species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and has low flows which will worsen with less snow in the winter, more rain in the winter, and less rain in the summer. With some stream flows in the watershed already well below median levels and the intense heat wave and subsequent snow melt of late June, drought conditions are very likely in 2021. This is all critical to keep in mind because farmers and rural water users depend upon groundwater and groundwater keeps salmon bearing streams running. When groundwater levels begin to get depleted and drop below creek bottom depth, the Lower Nooksack Tributaries (Bertrand Creek, Fishtrap Creek and Ten Mile Creek) will run dry and won’t be able to support salmon.

Fortunately, Whatcom County has an existing, collaborative body called the Watershed Management Board. This body has identified technical needs and strategies such as refinements to the groundwater model, Regional Water Supply Plan, and Drainage Based Management within the 2018-2023 WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board Implementation Strategy (also known as the WMB five year work plan) to address water issues in the Nooksack. The Planning Unit, which has an Agricultural Caucus and an Environmental Caucus (of which RE Sources is a member), is another collaborative body that could help identify gaps in technical information.

We believe that collaborative solutions are possible; however, we also believe that adjudication can bring all parties to the table and help keep them there. The Department of Ecology, Governor Inslee, the Washington state legislature, Lummi Nation, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and City of Bellingham all support adjudication for this reason. RE Sources supports collaborative solutions that are informed by the best available science to plan for sound outcomes.

For more information about Nooksack watershed adjudication, visit salmonneedwater.org.

1 ESSB 5092, page 312: http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2021-22/Pdf/Bills/Session%20Laws/Senate/5092-S.SL.pdf?q=20210621141958.
(b) $125,000 of the general fund—state appropriation for fiscal year 2022 and $125,000 of the general fund—state appropriation for fiscal year 2023 are provided solely for Whatcom county to support a collaborative process among local water users and water right holders that can complement water rights adjudication in the Nooksack (water resources inventory area 1) watershed. Funding is provided for facilitation and mediation among parties, development of planning and technical information, and assessment of local solutions. At a minimum, the collaborative process must seek to provide opportunities for discussion of increasing salmon populations and preserving farmland.

2 Snover, A.K., C.L. Raymond, H.A. Roop, H. Morgan, 2019. “No Time to Waste. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and Implications for Washington State.” Briefing paper prepared by the Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington, Seattle. Updated 02/2019

Photo: Brett Baunton / Wild Nooksack