How to Improve Whatcom Water-use Efficiency?

by Eric Hirst

The Colorado River Research Group wrote that, “Water users consume too much water from the river and, moving forward, must strive to use less, not more. Any conversation about the river that does not explicitly acknowledge this reality cannot provide a basis for making sound public policy.” (1)

Although the Nooksack River is very different from the Colorado, we can no longer view water as an abundant, even inexhaustible, resource. Because water is essential for life, we must treat it as the scarce, precious resource that it is. Increased efficiency could be an important mechanism to stretch available supplies and maintain a healthy environment in Whatcom County. (2) Water-use efficiency can provide substantial economic, resource and environmental benefits, and help protect against the adverse effects of drought. Reducing water use through efficiency:

•    Saves water to be used for other human purposes or left in creeks and the Nooksack River to benefit salmon and other wildlife, and to enhance recreational and scenic values.
•    Substitutes for water-supply projects that might cost more to build and operate.
•   Cuts the amount of water sent through water and sewage transportation and treatment   systems.
•    Saves energy.
•   Saves money, including the costs to treat and pump water and sewage.

Whether this potential becomes reality depends primarily on institutional actions. My research suggests activities that state and local entities could take to make water-use efficiency a reality in Whatcom County. Organizations that could encourage greater efficiency include the state departments of Ecology, Health and Agriculture, and many local organizations. Local governments including Whatcom County, the city of Bellingham, other municipalities, Public Utility District #1, Whatcom Conservation District, the local office of the Washington State University Extension Service, and the six agricultural watershed improvement districts are examples of such entities. In addition, nongovernmental entities could promote water-use efficiency including Whatcom Family Farmers, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Connections and the Whatcom Water Alliance. The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe also can play important roles in encouraging water-use efficiency.

This list suggests that the number of supporting entities is large. But it is unclear what each entity could or should do to encourage water-use efficiency. The kinds of actions possible include education and information, research and demonstrations, data collection and analysis, technical assistance, financial assistance, program design and implementation, and regulatory requirements. What follows is a set of suggestions that will change over time as we gain experience.

These suggestions are similar to those made more than a decade ago in the WRIA 1 Watershed Management Plan. (3) That plan included three elements:

•    Water-use efficiency for domestic, municipal, commercial and industrial water.
•    Water-use efficiency for agriculture.
•    Identification and removal of legal disincentives to water-use efficiency.

These ideas are also consistent with policies in the August 2016 Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. (4) As examples:

•    Policy 10D-3: Promote the efficient use, conservation and protection of water resources.
•   Goal 10F: Protect and enhance water quantity and quality, and promote sustainable and efficient use of water resources.
•    Goal 10-I: Support water conservation, reclamation, reuse measures and education as a means to ensure sufficient water supplies in the future
•    Policy 10I-1: Support and assist water users in the development of cost-effective means of improving efficiency of water use. (5)

Flows in the Nooksack River and its tributaries are lowest during the summer. These low flows, and associated high water temperatures and low levels of dissolved oxygen, stress salmon and other fish and wildlife. Therefore, efficiency efforts should focus on summer water use. Summer use is primarily for outdoor purposes, especially crop irrigation, which accounts for up to 70 percent of all summer water use.

Suggestions for State and Local Entities

Whatcom County
•    Coordinate water-use efficiency activities of other local entities to minimize duplication, encourage information sharing and realize economies of scale and scope.
•    Collect, organize, analyze and report on water-use data by sector and month. Provide the public with information on historical trends and current patterns of water use. These data will also serve as the basis for assessing the effectiveness of water-use efficiency programs.
•    Develop and apply forecasting models to estimate future Whatcom County water use by end-use sector, month and region.
•    Consider regulations that, for example, require new homes built in rural areas that rely on permit-exempt wells to meet stricter efficiency standards for water-using equipment.
•    Consider changes to agricultural zoning to require more efficient irrigation equipment and scheduling practices.
•    Solicit grants from state and federal agencies for water-use efficiency projects.
•    Serve as project manager for  local efforts to research, test and demonstrate water-use efficiency technologies and practices.

Public Utility District #1
•    Solicit grants from state and federal agencies.
•    Serve as project manager for local efforts to research, test and demonstrate water-use efficiency technologies and practices.
•    Working with its Cherry Point customers to encourage local industries to adopt water-use efficiency measures.

City of Bellingham
•    Adopt pro-efficiency water and sewer rate structures, including seasonal rates (prices higher in the summer when water is scarce), inclining block-rate structure (those who use more water pay a higher price), and monthly billing (to improve salience of billing data to actual water use).
•    Expand current programs to additional customer classes and equipment, with an emphasis on outdoor water use.
•    Provide technical and programmatic assistance to other local utilities (municipalities, water districts and associations) on water-use efficiency program design and operation.
•    On a contract basis, provide water-use efficiency program services to customers of smaller utilities that cannot afford to design and operate their own programs, i.e., provide economies of scale.

Department of Ecology
•    Begin a formal water-use efficiency program in the Water Resources Program. Couple this new program with the ongoing drought contingency planning effort and the effort to identify mitigation options for the impacts of new permit-exempt groundwater withdrawals.
•    Expand the Watershed Plan Implementation and Flow Achievement Capital Grant Program to include funding for water-use efficiency projects.
•    Implement metering requirements to ensure data availability to measure the effects of water-use efficiency technologies and practices; analyze these data and report results to the public.
•    Recommend to the state Legislature changes to water laws that discourage farmer adoption of water-use efficiency measures, especially relinquishment.

Department of Agriculture
•    Begin a program to improve water-use efficiency for irrigation, dairy farms and other key agricultural activities. The program could include research, demonstrations, technical assistance and financial assistance. It could also include data collection and analysis on agricultural water use and its details (trends over time, differences by location and purpose of water use).

State Department of Health
•    Expand requirements for utility water-use efficiency programs to include more measures and measurable results. Focus on distribution-system leak detection and repair, and rate structures that discourage waste and promote efficiency.

Whatcom Conservation District and/or WSU Extension Service
•    Solicit grants from Washington state and the federal government (e.g., the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSmart program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service) to test, demonstrate and educate farmers about technologies and practices applicable to Whatcom County agriculture.
•    Help farmers implement improved technologies and practices.

Watershed Improvement Districts
•    Research and test the effectiveness in Whatcom County of efficient agricultural technologies and practices.
•    Disseminate results of research and tests to local farmers.
•    Solicit grants from state and federal agencies to design and implement programs to adopt efficient agricultural technologies and practices.

Desired Actions Regardless of Who Does Them

•    Collect, organize and report baseline data on water use. These data should be collected on a monthly basis and cover at least a decade to provide historical perspective and trends. These data should be disaggregated by economic sector, end use and location (e.g., utility boundaries, watershed improvement district boundaries and watersheds).
•    Develop lists of candidate water-use efficiency technologies and practices by end use and sector. For each measure, estimate water savings, initial cost and operating cost. Summarize data in terms of $/acre-feet saved.
•    Estimate potential and practical savings for the measures identified above, singly and in combination.
•    Combine measures into coherent and cost-effective programs aimed at each economic sector. Identify institutions best situated to deliver these programs (e.g., water utilities, Whatcom Conservation District or watershed improvement districts).
•    Identify elements of state water law that might limit progress in achieving water-use efficiency gains. Suggest legislative changes to address these obstacles.
•    Organize information-sharing mechanisms (website, newsletter, periodic meetings and seminars) to coordinate local activities and to minimize duplication of effort.
•    Analyze the pros and cons of alternative utility rate structures, including the balance between fixed and variable charges, multiple tiers of variable charge, and seasonal rates.


1. Colorado River Research Group, “The First Step in Repairing the Colorado River’s Broken Water Budget: Summary Report,” Dec. 2014.

2. E. Hirst  Improving Whatcom Water-Use Efficiency: Opportunities and Obstacles, July 2016.

3. Section 3 of the March 2005 plan includes eight pages (56 through 63) on WUE.




Eric Hirst moved to Bellingham in 2002. He has a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University, taught at Tuskegee Institute for two years, and then for 30 years worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a policy analyst on energy efficiency and the structure of the electricity industry. He has spent the last eight years of his career as a consultant.



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