Farmers hope to organize new water districts

Published on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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With water rights issues expected to become more contentious in the coming years, farmers in northern Whatcom County are attempting to form new water districts to gain more say in how the watershed is managed.

More than 60 residents in Blaine, Birch Bay, Custer, Ferndale and Lynden signed a petition to create the Drayton Watershed Improvement District, which would manage 27,498 acres of agricultural land in those areas. Three other irrigation districts are proposed in Laurel, South Lynden and Sumas. 

With both the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe filing lawsuits with the federal government to determine how much water should remain in local rivers to support healthy salmon habitat, farmers could lose some of their water access in the future. 

The purpose of the proposed districts would be to develop water supply options for agricultural landowners who might lose access to enough water to irrigate their crops. According to the petition, the districts would also prepare plans for watershed improvements, including projects that address drainage and flooding, improve instream flows, promote efficient irrigation water management and enhance water quality and fish habitat.

Under RCW 87.03, landowners in Washington can organize an irrigation-taxing district whenever at least 50 owners or a majority of landowners in a watershed agree to do so, but the formation of the district ultimately depends on whether voters approve it. If the Drayton Watershed Improvement District remains on track, voters in Blaine, Birch Bay and the other areas included in the district would receive a ballot – separate from the November general election ballot – in early October.

Councilmembers accepted the petition along with a $13,000 check as a bonding security to cover twice the estimated costs of forming the district at their regular meeting August 5. A public hearing will be scheduled for a council meeting in September.

“By accepting this petition, you facilitate us moving forward towards an election,” said Henry Bierlink, a farmer supporting the coalition to form the district.

The district would consist of five elected administrative directors. It would have the authority to levy taxes from farmers to pay for projects, with tax amounts corresponding to acreage. Landowners with more acreage would get more votes to elect representatives to the district, a fact that didn’t sit well with county councilmember Barbara Brenner.

“This is not one person, one vote. You could have decisions made by a very small minority,” Brenner said.

“It’s state law,” Bierlink responded. “These statutes are about 100 years old, but we are following the laws as they exist to try and do what needs to be done.”

Councilmembers voted unanimously to accept the petition and the petitioners’ security.

Council addressed another item dealing with water quality in the Drayton Harbor watershed earlier in the meeting.

Council agreed to send a letter to the Washington State Department of Health asking that western Drayton Harbor be reopened to seasonal recreational shellfish harvesting. The Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District advisory committee drafted the letter, which asserts that surveyed populations of clam species could support a recreational harvest, and points out that commercial and tribal shellfish harvests have been allowed on a conditional basis since 2004.

“A reopening of the recreational harvest would help bring greater optimism to the community in terms of our ability to improve water quality and regain access to these resources,” the letter stated.

Council voted unanimously to endorse the letter, and decided to forward it to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as the department of health.