Balancing Our Water Supply

Our region faces increasing drought and water availability concerns as the climate warms and our population grows.

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 for several months. We rely on mountain snow from the wetter months and groundwater stores to feed the rivers and creeks that people, farms, and spawning salmon rely on. 

Each year, regardless of official drought declarations, the Nooksack River tributaries become water-scarce in the summer and early fall when rain tapers off and when farms, fish, and people need it most. And this type of drought is likely to become more commonplace as the climate heats up and Whatcom County’s population rises. We need to prioritize solutions like efficient water use in the summer and fall, so a portion of the Nooksack’s water can stay in the streams to keep them cool and flowing for salmon.

The first six months of 2019 were the eighth driest on record for Washington since 1895, with close to half the state included in an official drought emergency after a record-breaking dry, hot spring and very little snow in the mountains. The Nooksack River basin was part of the drought declaration — a stark reminder that we’re not immune from water worries.

In those gorgeous summer and early fall days, our rivers and creeks can even have too little water for people to move in kayaks or canoes, let alone salmon returning to spawn. It’s also, unfortunately, the time of year people use the most water, and nearly half of Washington was in a drought emergency in summer 2019 as well as 2015. Take a deep dive into those two droughts.

Balancing water use for a climate-changed Washington

Climate change means the extremes will get more extreme — less water in the already-dry summers, and excess water from winter storms that can flush away or salmon eggs. The heat and wildfire smoke of late summer is when lack of water is most palpable, but we cannot let ourselves forget about water resources for the rest of the year. We need to take a hard look at how, where, and when Whatcom County is using water. Status quo is no longer an option.

Whatcom County’s population is anticipated to grow by 75,000 in the next 20 years. We learned from a survey of hundreds of rural Whatcom County residents that people in rural Whatcom County are already experiencing water shortages, their wells running dry in the late summer. Aquifers are dropping in the City of Ferndale. These are our friends and neighbors; for them (as well as the salmon and Tribal communities who depend on them), this is not a problem of the future — it is their current reality. 

How is water distributed among those who need it in Washington? Get the basics with this three-minute read by our policy analyst Karlee Deatherage

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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, 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 from the Department of Ecology and from our Sustainable Schools team.

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Get in touch with our team!

Karlee Deatherage, Clean Water Policy Analyst
Phone: (425) 268-5245
Email: KarleeD@re-sources.org

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Our Work

Though a lot is uncertain, we push for statewide and local solutions for a future where…

  • The Nooksack River and its tributaries have enough clean, cool water in the summer to sustain economically vital salmon runs and satisfy Tribal treaty rights,
  • Farmers have legal, certain access to water,
  • Our communities are more resilient to impacts of climate change and increased drought,
  • Our communities focus on the most cost-effective, common-sense solutions instead of mitigation measures that cause other unintended consequences to water quality and fish habitat,
  • Available water is used equitably and efficiently, and water is prioritized during drought for necessities like a thriving local food system, over luxury uses.

The state legislature passed a bill in January 2018 called the Streamflow Restoration Act (SRA). The legislation required Whatcom County to update the Nooksack watershed plan to offset the anticipated water use of future growth in rural areas. Unfortunately, local efforts failed to meet the deadline outlined in the SRA and the process was turned over to the Department of Ecology. This process has several points for public input.

This is an opportunity for Whatcom County to begin planning for future water use before water shortages become even more commonplace. RE Sources is engaging community members in the public process as Ecology determines how much water new private wells in the Nooksack River watershed can use, and how we will offset that usage over the next 20 years. Soon, the Department of Ecology will need to hear from you. We’re watching this issue closely and we will mobilize the community to balance water for fish, farms, and people in the coming months.

Whatcom County’s approach to water supply issues has been piecemealed, and there has been no holistic vision for improving water quantity and streamflows. Here are some changes within Washington State’s and Whatcom County’s power that you can urge them to take action on:

  • Hold the line and improve the SRA rule for the Nooksack (remove 1/12 acre lawn watering allowance, but maintain fire prevention and subsistence garden; keep 500 gallons per day indoor use limit),
  • Amend SRA law so projects and offsets actually happen and are working – need a new piece of legislation that has a penalty for agencies/governments not doing their job
  • Amend the state relinquishment law for farmers so that they would not be subject to “use it or lose it” if they conserve water,
  • Create a fully functioning county-wide water efficiency and conservation program for all sectors of water users by 2020, with clear, bold goals to save specific amounts of water within identified timeframes,
  • Successful implementation of a good system to track and monitor progress,
  • Create an equitable water market/exchange for farmers,
  • Provide assistance for farmers to move surface water rights to groundwater rights,
  • Restore wetlands, riparian areas along rivers, and forests to improve the land’s ability to store water in the wet season and release it during the dry season.

RE Sources and other environmental advocates are also part of an effort known as the Watershed Resource Inventory Area 1 Planning Unit. This group of local and state governments, tribes, agriculture, private well owners, and others with a stake in our water, has existed since 1999. Anyone can be a part of it if our group vision resonates with you: We envision a future Whatcom County where our community is unified in restoring and protecting a resilient ecosystem as our highest priority. Email Karlee Deatherage for details and how to get involved!