Farmers to try to pool water rights, aid salmon - offered 'incentives' to place existing water rights into a 'bank' or 'watershed district', where water would be distributed from a 'collective pool'

FARMING: Bertrand, Ten Mile Creek water-sheds are target areas.
Ericka Pizzillo, The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County, WA - 2/5/03 - Some Whatcom County farmers are proposing a plan to end their long wait for water permits by improving stream conditions for salmon along their fields.

The farmers are creating a plan that would combine existing water rights in certain creek basins to distribute among all member farmers. In exchange, the farmers would agree to make improvements in streams used by the threatened chinook salmon and other fish.

Approximately 60 percent of the water used for agriculture in the county is illegally drawn, according to the Whatcom Conservation District.

Several hundred farmers have waited for years on a state list for a water permit while the Legislature, state regulators and local planning groups make decisions on water.

The farmers' new plans would require farmers in certain watersheds, such as those along Bertrand Creek and its tributaries, to agree to goals for stream quality and quantity over time, but the farmers would determine how to make those improvements.

The process is similar to the state's cleanup of polluted water bodies, which set timetables for reducing pollutants like fecal coliform or nitrates. Local residents and governments decide how to meet the goal.

"This is the kind of thing us farmers have been talking about all along," said Everson-area dairy farmer Jason Vander Veen. "We're not against meeting goals. But we'd like to have some input into them. We have lots of ideas."


While rainfall is abundant in Whatcom County, many farmers - especially berry farmers - rely on irrigation because their crops ripen during the driest part of the year.

Both the conservation district and the farmer group Whatcom County Agricultural Preservation Committee, of which Vander Veen is president, are working on the plan.

The state gave the groups $74,000 to help create the "comprehensive irrigation district management plans" in the Ten Mile Creek watershed in the Laurel area and the Bertrand Creek watershed in the Lynden area.

More money is possible for a third watershed, said Robert Caldwell, a Seattle attorney working with the farmers.

The Whatcom County project is one of three being formed throughout the state. State pilot program money has also gone to projects on the Dungeness and Walla Walla rivers.

West side farms

The management plans were originally created by the state to help farmers in Eastern Washington balance the needs of their irrigation districts with endangered fish.

But the intentions of the plan are broad enough to be used in Western Washington where there are no irrigation districts, but where water and drainage ditch issues are still controversial, said Henry Bierlink, preservation committee administrator.

How the watershed districts will work is still an open question, as is whether a majority of farmers in each of the areas will join, Bierlink said.

The farmers might transfer their water permits to a watershed district or current permit holders might pool their resources and distribute water rights like a bank, giving out resources from a collective pool. The districts could be formed from the existing drainage districts in that area or organizers might look to the Legislature to create a new type of district that works on water and salmon issues.

No matter which way they're created, all forms would include elected member representatives.

Farmers and tribal, state, federal and local officials would work out agreements that set the minimum amount of water in streams and goals for fish habitat, water temperature and quality.

Farmers in the district would decide how to meet those goals, for example by planting trees to cool water, installing filter strips to reduce manure or pesticide runoff or adding woody debris that improves fish habitat. They could even draw water from wells and deposit it in streams that are running low during spawning season, Bierlink said.

The water permits would be at risk if the goals weren't reached.

Common sense

There is also an incentive for farmers with existing water permits to join because their permits could be reduced or lost if federal agencies determine those permits hurt endangered fish or cause violations of the Clean Water Act, Caldwell said.

Drainage districts, made up mostly of farmers, also face increasing obstacles to clearing ditches and streams choked with canary grass and sediment, which often causes flooding and drainage problems on their fields.

Farmers have been told in some cases to plant in areas too waterlogged to keep trees alive and have had to fill out lengthy hydraulic permit applications to do any work, Bierlink said.

These irrigation plans could also ease the way for new drainage work since habitat improvements would already be underway, Bierlink said.

"This is really a common-sense approach rather than doing lots of studies and talk and nothing gets done," said Marty Maberry, a raspberry farmer east of Lynden. "We're trying to take the proactive approach and see if we can get results and stay in business rather than have the government decide what we're going to do and put everybody out of business."

Bierlink has met with county employees working on regional watershed planning, tribal representatives and environmentalists to get feedback on how the they would develop the program.

Sue Blake, a Whatcom County water resources planner said she's supportive of the project but still unsure how the plans might impact the larger countywide water planning process.

Maberry and other farmers are cautiously watching how the districts are created before determining if they would join.

"Farmers want some kind of security if they're going to enter this process they need some assurances and some time, Maberry said. "The devil is in the details."

Reach Ericka Pizzillo at or call 715-2266.


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