Toward the headwaters: Remembering Peter Willing

Longtime clean water advocate and RE Sources board member Peter Willing passed away at age 77 on New Years Day. | January 10, 2022

By Ted Wolf, RE Sources Board President

Peter Willing (right)

RE Sources board member Peter Willing passed away at age 77 on New Years Day. A Whatcom County resident for nearly 40 years and a hydrogeologist by training and profession, Peter lived his love for the Lake Whatcom watershed, the Nooksack River basin, and the Salish Sea with a generous spirit and an unfailing twinkle in his eye.

A Pennsylvania native, Peter traveled west and forged a bond with the Salish Sea after attending Williams College in Massachusetts. Chinese language studies at the University of Washington led him to a stint overseas as a military translator during the Vietnam War, but Peter returned stateside convinced that water resources held the key to the human prospect. He earned a Ph.D. in natural resources at Cornell University (and lifelong loyalty to Big Red), and headed west to put his degree to work.

After working for the State of Wyoming and, later, as Director of Environmental Affairs for Seattle City Light, Peter moved to Bellingham in 1983 to assume the post of General Manager of the Lake Whatcom Water District. Five years later, he launched his own consulting practice, Water Resources Consulting, LLC — a role that allowed him to indulge his love of travel, foreign languages, and cultures.

In retirement, Peter continued explorations of his Salish Sea home, many of them aboard his beloved 40-foot sailboat Ruby. He loved teaching young people to sail. He devoted himself to the work of the San Juan Preservation Trust, particularly to the stewardship of 217-acre Vendovi Island where the waters of Padilla, Samish, and Bellingham bays mix.

After years of support to RE Sources as a community activist, a loyal donor, and a determined opponent of the Gateway Pacific coal terminal, Peter joined the RE Sources board of directors in 2018. As a board member, Peter leaned into the work of the board and its legal and board development committees. He was precise, meticulous, and held himself to the highest standards of participation. Former board president Charlie Maliszewski recalls that Peter “challenged us to consider all sides of an issue, then stood steadfastly behind the board’s final votes in both words and action.”

Peter cast his net widely in the community to meet unusual people and stir their interest in the work of RE Sources. He loved to meet prospective board members, bending close to ask incisive questions, leaning back to share a laugh, and searching for the signs of their passion for the natural world.

Peter’s board role was only a single facet of his dedication to RE Sources. Like many community members, Peter was a frequent RE Store shopper who, according to RE Store Director Kurt Gisclair, always took the time to connect with store staff during his visits. Peter was generous with his expertise, taking time to mentor staff and students and often pressing local decision makers with written and verbal testimony delivered at public hearings. He was an active member of the Water Resources Inventory Area #1 (WRIA 1) Environmental Caucus. Senior Environmental Advocate Ander Russell remembers Peter as “a great advocate for water resources planning. His wit and expertise were formidable!”

Peter placed his greatest hope in young people, whom he knew to be “our future leaders, our future board members, our future legislators, our future movers and shakers.” For two years preceding the coronavirus pandemic, Peter made time to volunteer in a first-grade classroom in the Mount Baker School District. His rangy, towering presence surely made an impression on those six-year-olds! Former board member Holly Harris recalls: “Peter had done his homework, he knew that many of the kids were living in single-family households, and many had learning challenges. Peter reasoned that ‘being a big, tall guy who could also not be scary’ might be helpful to those kids. He won them over by simply showing up and sitting quietly, ready to help in any way they needed support. Soon there were children who rushed to grab his hands when he arrived for his volunteer shifts, which touched him and made him so happy.”

I last spoke with Peter in late November, as Whatcom County faced devastating floods from the torrential rains of that month. Knowing that his property bordered Anderson Creek, a Nooksack River tributary east of Bellingham, I asked whether the flooding creek was causing him any problems. His reply was immediate: “That creek’s just doing what a creek’s going to do.”

His comment spoke volumes. Peter slipped quietly past any inconvenience to himself, and shifted our focus to a bigger system that he respected. No one in that valley understood Anderson Creek better than Peter. He knew that in flood, the watercourse at the back of his property was susceptible to his influence but not subject to anyone’s control. To paraphrase an environmental adage, “water bats last.”

A dedicated water scientist with a devotion to the next generation — “worldly and keenly intelligent, but just so humble,” in the words of a former board colleague — Peter had a knack for moving toward the headwaters, where the influence of a single life might be greatest. Oregon poet William Stafford put it this way in his poem “Climbing Along the River”:

Even the upper end of the river

Believes in the ocean.

Peter’s journey to that upper end is complete. We will miss him.

My thanks to current and former RE Sources staff and board members who generously shared their recollections of Peter with me.