Watershed improvement districts head to ballot

by Ian Ferguson

Whatcom County Council approved four new Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDs), bringing county farmers a step closer to water-management autonomy, but councilmember Barbara Brenner has raised questions about how those new districts would operate.

At their regular meeting September 30, Whatcom County Council voted 6–1 to accept a petition to form the Drayton WID and three other WIDs in Laurel, south Lynden and Sumas. All four districts will now go on the ballot for November elections.

The Drayton WID includes agricultural land in unincorporated areas near Blaine, Birch Bay and Custer. It consists of the upland watersheds for Dakota Creek and California Creek. The district would not include land not zoned as agricultural open space and all parcels smaller than 4.5 acres.

Brenner said she opposed the districts for multiple reasons.

“They haven’t submitted their probable water source, which is required by state law,” Brenner said.

She also disagreed with how votes would be counted within the district. Each landowner would receive two votes for every five acres of assessable land within the district, meaning those with more land would have more say. A farmer with 500 acres would receive 200 votes and a homeowner with five acres of agricultural open space land would receive two votes.

“I can’t think of another system in America that works that way,” Brenner said. “It’s undemocratic.”

Washington state’s RCW 87.03 allows the formation of irrigation districts to help farmers get access to irrigation water for their crops. The Whatcom Ag District Coalition, the organization working on forming the new districts, is calling them Watershed Improvement Districts because they seek to bring farmers together to work on a variety of issues, including water quality, water rights and environmental restoration.

“These new WIDs would be created to enable legal representation of landowners from different parts of Whatcom County so that each WID can focus on the priority issues for the agricultural landowners within that particular district,” stated an explanation published by the Whatcom Ag District Coalition.

Two Whatcom County WIDs have already existed for years: Bertrand WID and North Lynden WID. In addition to providing a voice for farmers in water issues, the districts engage in projects to improve irrigation infrastructure and management.

Included in the proposal for the four new WIDs is a list of current and projected projects that includes stream augmentation from groundwater, modeling surface and groundwater resources to create a water budget, provide water storage and water banks, and monitoring streams to fix perennial water quality issues.

A major goal of the WIDs is to help landowners prevent sewage and manure spills that lead to high fecal coliform counts and recreational shellfish closures. Funding would come through tax assessments based on acreage and grants from state, federal and other sources.

Along with environmental concerns, the WIDs seek to secure water rights for farmers, in light of the request by the Nooksack and Lummi Indian tribes to have the federal government quantify their water rights. The tribes have senior water rights in the Nooksack River Basin. The state department of ecology currently manages Watershed Resource Inventory Area 1, which covers the Nooksack River watershed, with Whatcom County as the area’s lead agency.

The WIDs will be formed if they gain the support of at least two thirds of voters within each district in the November election. Voters would elect a board of directors with three, five or seven members at the same time they decide whether or not to form the district.

In addition to disagreeing with how votes are distributed, Brenner said she thinks the timing will confuse voters because the vote will be held at the same time as the general election.

“Usually special ballot votes are held in February, so I don’t think the timing of this serves the voters. It will be interesting to see how many people who are directly affected by this either don’t vote for it or won’t even know about it,” she said.

Brenner said she agrees with the idea of the WIDs in principle, but had too many misgivings to vote for them.

“I like and trust most of the guys who are the proponents of these WIDs, but every time we met about this I learned something new that made me more concerned,” Brenner said. “The proponents are putting this together and making it sound like motherhood and apple pie, but I also think it could create problems for other water users and farmers down the road.”

More information about the WIDs can be found on the Whatcom Ag District Coalition website: http://bit.ly/1yNDEpe. A group of private well owners in Whatcom County has organized a website questioning the WIDs, which can be found at whatcom-well-owners.org.

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