Farmers protest limits on wells - Stillaguamish River basin plan draws an outcry at public meeting.

By Lukas Velush
Herald Writer

ARLINGTON - More than 150 farmers and landowners lashed out at the state Department of Ecology Thursday night, upset that the state has proposed limiting their access to the resource they cherish most - water.

"Here we are trying to preserve the farmer once again," said Rick Williams, a fourth-generation farmer from Stanwood. "As usual, the people who feed the country come in last."

Williams and the rest of the audience at Thursday's public hearing weren't receptive to the state's plan to limit the number of wells allowed in rural parts of the Stillaguamish River basin. The Ecology Department was taking public comments on a plan it expects to adopt in September.

The new regulations would make farmers and other large users of water apply for interruptible water permits when they want to increase the amount of water they use or if they are a new water user, said Steve Hirschey, who is leading the department's effort to develop the new well rules.

Anyone who gets an interruptible permit would have to turn off the tap if the river drops below levels considered healthy for salmon, trout and steelhead. Existing farms and businesses with existing water rights would not be affected.

The state would also allow 9,000 to 18,000 new residential wells to be drilled in the Stillaguamish River basin. The precise number would depend on how much water is used by the new wells; once the limit is reached, that would be it. That's enough to meet the county's population growth projections for the area.

But on Thursday night, farmers fired angry questions at agency officials for more than two hours.

"My question is why don't the scientists give us our property rights back," said Marlene Ross, a horse rancher from Darrington. "The landowner doesn't have any rights anymore."

Ross and Williams were among the farmers who were upset that they would have to go to court to determine whether their goal of expanding the water their farms would need to grow would be legal or not.

That was a concern addressed by Arlington City Council member Steve Baker as well.

"Your rule discourages any new farming," Baker said. "Who will determine whether (our future wells) affect the aquifer or not? We'll have to hire a scientist to go out there and find out?"

That would be true, Hirschey said, adding that the state doesn't have the legal authority to determine whether a well would reduce the flow of the Stilly and its tributaries. The new rule allows farmers and other large water users to drill new wells without restriction if they don't affect river levels in the basin.

"You have to realize water is a limited resource," Hirschey said, explaining that the Johnny-come-latelys to the new rules would be subject to having their water turned off during drought years.

Still, the state is willing to work with landowners as best it can, said Hirschey, who said the state will not make a final decision on the plan until it takes the public's comments into consideration.

Enforcing the rule will be crucial if fish populations in the Stillaguamish River basin are to survive as they have for so many generations, said Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe.

"We need to protect the fish for future generations," Yanity said. "If those fish are gone, then it's a dead river."

Williams said the farmers who have been working the land for generation after generation are the best stewards of the land. He said the government's continued onslaught of new regulations is running those stewards off one by one.

"When are we going to cut out all this malarkey?" he asked.

Reporter Lukas Velush: 425-339-3449 or


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