Hundreds of citizens from around the Nooksack River watershed filed into a stifling hot Pioneer Pavilion Community Center in Ferndale on September 13 to hear about the impending adjudication of the Nooksack.
Experts from multiple water rights consulting firms, and representatives from the Department of Ecology (DOE) presented information on what an adjudication is, and how to provide the state with the necessary information to prove a water right claim in order to earn an adjudication certificate.
Robin McPherson, adjudications assessment manager for DOE, informed attendants that the adjudication process will begin in the spring of 2024, but cautioned that since both surface water and groundwater will be assessed, the process will be slow-moving at first, and that residents have time on their side. “I know there’s a sense of urgency, there’s a sense of concern,” McPherson said. “But we really do have a lot of time to answer questions and help people understand what’s going on.”
Jill Van Hulle, a water rights specialist for Aspect Consulting, also spoke to the crowd of curious, and some upset, farmers and well owners in Ferndale. “People are really hungry for information about the adjudication,” Van Hulle said. “It’s going to be a big deal, and a lot of people are very anxious about what it’s going to mean to them and their ability to use water.”
The Nooksack basin, or more accurately Water Resource Inventory Area 1, as the state determines it, is working under water rights laws written in 1917 and updated in 1945. “The Nooksack is a complicated watershed,” Van Hulle said. “You’ve got a lot of agriculture, you’ve got two different tribes and you’ve got declining water levels.” After decades of growth in population and agriculture, demand in the Nooksack watershed has increased drastically.
The current system for claiming water rights makes it nearly impossible to secure a new right, thus making the adjudication process necessary, Van Hulle said. “It was a lot easier in 1917 to apply for a water right,” Van Hulle said. “That’s the beauty of adjudication. After that process is over, people will have a much better sense of what they’re legally entitled to use.”
The process of adjudicating a river watershed has only happened once in the state’s history. The adjudication of the Yakima Valley Basin began in 1977, with over 2,300 claims across four counties being parsed through by DOE. It wasn’t officially over until a Superior Court judge made a final decree in 2019. The DOE said there are roughly 5,000 surface and groundwater rights on file in WRIA 1, some dating as far back as 100 years ago.
McPherson said that the state still does not expect this adjudication to take nearly as long. “I think 10 years is a good estimate,” McPherson said. “Fifteen years could be the estimate. It will all depend on how many issues arise as it goes on. The DOE will notify water users within WRIA 1 through certified mail and in newspapers around the county before adjudication officially begins next spring. “We still owe the public more outreach and education,” McPherson said. “We’re through the legislative process where it could be debated. We are instructed to now go forward and file this.”
The DOE can review county property records, building permits, GIS systems and other satellite data to investigate water claims, McPherson said. The vast majority of investigations will be conducted at a desk in Olympia, and not require anyone from the state to enter private property. Residents who use water in a system, such as a public utility district or municipal supply, will not have to file a claim. Nearly everyone else, the DOE’s website says, even those who use permit-exempt wells, must participate in the adjudication. “At the end of the day, an adjudicated certificate is a valuable thing,” McPherson said. “Being in the adjudication has much more value to a landowner and to water users than not.”
Those who want to learn more about the adjudication process and their own water rights can find information on the DOE website at bit.ly/45U7dHE.
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