Workable water plan aids fish - Whatcom County farmers plan to take matters into their own hands

Bellingham Herald Opinion


RESOURCES: Farmers can gain water permits by boosting streams, salmon habitat.

Whatcom County farmers' plan to take matters into their own hands in an effort to solve the decades-long water-rights debacle shows real promise.

The farmers want to end their wait for water permits by agreeing to improve streams and salmon habitat along their fields. The farmers would be given goals to meet, but would be able to decide themselves how best to meet those goals. Failure to do so would put their water rights in jeopardy.

Despite repeated promises to find answers to who has a right to how much water and who is using how much water, the state hasn't moved far on the issue. Meanwhile, the Whatcom Conservation District estimates that 60 percent of the water used for agriculture in this county is illegally drawn.

The farmers' plan seems workable because it focuses on results in practice, not numbers on paper. For example, a measure of success might be the quality and temperature of the water rather than the footage of streamside plantings. The former indicates success, the latter indicates meeting a requirement on paper. If salmon habitat is being improved and farmers are able to draw the water they need, everyone is happy. Farmers in thirsty Eastern Washington are experimenting with similar efforts on the Walla Walla River.

While water is certainly more plentiful this side of the Cascades, one of Whatcom County's most profitable crops, raspberries, needs irrigation because the fruit ripens during the driest part of the year.

From a policy standpoint, this plan makes sense because those who stand to lose the most are in charge in of their own destinies. Farmers know their land - when nearby streams are high or low, where shade could be increased to cool the water for salmon, where runoff problems of fertilizer or pesticides could be mitigated. That makes them qualified to improve streams. And the threat of losing their water rights if they don't succeed is adequate incentive.

The plan would pool existing water rights in certain creek basins and distribute them among all member farmers. That group of farmers would then be responsible for the water levels and quality in their area. The standards would be determined by state, federal and tribal officials.

There are still many details to be worked out, but the basic premise of this plan looks sound. It's one of the few creative ways presented to let hundreds of farmers with permits in limbo have some certainty for the future of their farms.


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