Plan would ensure water for farmers who help streams

Ericka Pizzillo, The Bellingham Herald


Whatcom County, WA - Nearly 400 landowners in the Bertrand Creek area could vote later this year on a plan that would guarantee them water to irrigate their farms - if they promise to improve water quality in their local streams.

A petition now circulating among landowners needs 50 signatures and approval from the Whatcom County Council to go on the ballot sometime in December.

The petition and the plans for Bertrand Creek area, and later the Ten Mile Creek area, are the work of the Agricultural Preservation Committee, a group of farmers formed about a decade ago when some farmers were required to sign up for permits for their unpermitted water use.

Approximately 60 percent of the water used for agriculture in the county is illegally drawn, according to the Whatcom Conservation District. Much of the water use goes back decades and was used by previous generations that dug wells or laid pipes to draw water directly from streams.

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.

Now, many county farmers are hoping a pilot project to distribute water to unpermitted agricultural users is the answer, said Henry Bierlink, administrator of the Agricultural Preservation Committee.

"I believe that once people see the success of this locally driven process and we get results, there's going to be a rush to do more of these," Bierlink said.

The proposed plan, called a Watershed Improvement District, would start with those who live in the Bertrand Creek watershed and who own more than 2.5 acres - approximately 398 landowners on 583 parcels. It's unknown how many of those landowners are using unpermitted water.

If the landowners vote to establish the improvement district, a five-member board would be elected and could impose up to a 50-cent-per-acre tax on the landowners. Additional taxes could be imposed only through separate elections.

The watershed improvement districts are based on the state laws for irrigation districts that exist in Eastern Washington.

An agreement with state officials and local tribes would be required to set a schedule for improvements to water quality that the district would make happen through streamside tree planting, curtailing runoff of manure and chemical fertilizers, or other work that would make the streams cleaner and more accessible to salmon and other fish.

In exchange, the state and the district would negotiate a set amount of water to be distributed to farmers by the district. That water supply could come from either a new water permit issued to the district by the state or by the state reallocating existing water permits in the area that have gone unused over the years, Bierlink said.

Any existing water permits, including those for residential usage would be unaffected.

The district also would be liable for making sure water quality standards in the agreement met the timetable initially agreed upon.

Bierlink said any taxes imposed by the district would be just a small start to pay for the stream restoration work. More likely, the work would be paid for with grants the district could seek out.

The Ten Mile Creek area has already been the focus of salmon restoration efforts driven by local apple farmer Dorie Belisle, who is working with her neighbors to create salmon habitat along the streams in the watershed with the landowner's cooperation.

The Agricultural Preservation Committee is asking for $55,000 to $75,000 in next year's budget from the Whatcom County Council to help get the Bertrand Creek Watershed Improvement District started. Bierlink said his group would ask for a second amount for the 2005 budget to help jumpstart the district in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

"The money is a one-time allotment to get these districts established," Bierlink said.

The Department of Ecology sees promise in the idea, but will have to wait to see a proposal from a district before deciding if officials can work out an agreement, said Jim Bucknell, water resources specialist for the department's Bellingham office.

The districts also have received support from the state, including $245,000 to fund the research into the district. On Tuesday, Jim Waldo, Gov. Gary Locke's water policy adviser, spoke to the County Council about the pilot plans in Whatcom County, as well as in the Walla Walla and Dungeness river watersheds.

"We believe this tool has tremendous promise," Waldo said.

Dairy farmer Jason Vander Veen told County Council members that farmers in Western Washington are caught in a bind of needing water at the height of summer and needing to get rid of standing water in their fields in the middle of winter. He said he and other farmers are excited about a plan that help gives farmers future certainty about their water supply.

Farmers already have been working to reduce their water needs, said Marty Maberry, a raspberry farmer at the farm of his father, Jake Maberry. On a tour of farms for the County Council on Tuesday, Maberry explained that he's been able to cut his water use in half during the height of the raspberry-growing season by using drip irrigation instead of sprinkler-like water guns.

And many farmers are working to reduce their reliance on water pumped directly from streams or using wells, especially wells that do not have an underground connection to streams, he said.

Little is known about groundwater's influence and connections on local streams, making countywide decisions on water use even more difficult for regulators attempting to allocate new permits and meet minimum water depth requirements on rivers and streams for fish. Fish need certain levels of water so full-grown salmon don't get stranded on their way to spawning beds.

Bierlink said he thinks the districts will be able to work with regulators to set water levels that can vary throughout the year, based on the fish needs and the farmers' needs, which occur during different months.

Vern VandeGarde, who works on a dairy farm, is helping to organize Bertrand Creek Watershed residents, get their support for the district and determine how much water is needed by farmers currently without permits.

He already has 25 signatures. With another 25 and approval from the County Council, he expects the mail-in ballot election to happen on Dec. 9.

The long wait for water has been frustrating for farmers, VandeGarde said.

"Right now, this (the district) is our best chance," VandeGarde said. "Everybody seems willing to give it their best shot."


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