Looking for Answers: Whatcom County vs Hirst, Futurewise, et al.

November 28, 2016

Researching and learning about the water rights issue in our County and State over the past several weeks has confused me more than it has clarified the options the County Council has to exercise. It is more complex than one can imagine, and there were many factors which contributed to the supreme court decision. Many rural residents are angered and baffled by the ruling; they feel robbed and have expressed their dismay at the council because this supreme court ruling has their lives turned upside down. Though they are seeking answers from the administration, there are not many bright spots on the horizon at this time.

Many common-sense questions have been raised, such as:

  • How come a typical rural home withdrawing 150 gallons per day and returning 90 percent of that water to the ground through a septic field is labelled as “depleting the water resources and affecting the in-stream flows”?
  • The city of Bellingham, with 90,000 residents, uses five million gallons of water daily (add another 20 percent for commercial/industrial use), and dumps six million gallons of water into the bay with zero return to groundwater. How come this act of water use is not under scrutiny?
  • What is the motive behind the pursuit of the courts on rural water use? Is it about preserving water or is it about extinguishing rural growth by proxy?

Another highly discussed topic has been around Whatcom PUD #1 and the city of Bellingham, which together holds almost 95 percent of the water rights. This amounts to 76 billion gallons per year (bgpy) of water, but they consume less than 8 bgpy. This publicly owned water allocation has been in existence since 1937 and should be part of the discussion.

To me, this is not a partisan issue about being for or against environmental preservation. This is about the legacy we leave for future generations, and the issue of fairness to equally bear the burden that comes with leaving that legacy behind. I am in favor of being prudent about the use of our natural resources and I support the motto that we should leave this place in a better environmental state than what we received.

Rural residents are angry because they feel they have been singled out to “pay” for the environmental preservation. Their resentment comes from not being consulted about something that takes away their rights, their life-savings, their lifestyle or even their retirement. The businesses and developers have the inherent ability to get compensated by passing on the additional costs of environmental laws to their final products. They get even when we, as consumers, pay for the “costs of environmental preservation.”

Landowners have no recourse, when their land is declared as “wetland” or “mandated buffers,” or “restricted water use” or “other requirements.” An owner of 20-acre parcel with two acres of wetland not only loses part of the land, but whole property is devalued. The society must pay for such forced devaluation, because after all, they are the beneficiary. What about the fairness doctrine? Our current system of penalizing landowners alone is not fair and it is not conducive towards their livelihoods, which often rely on that land in question.

Landowners are not the cause of climate change, or resource depletion or spoiling the environment for future generations. We all have been happy participants in the “consumer economy” and “wasteful resource practices” for the past 70 years, so why should one particular group bear the full brunt of climate change and limited resources? This must be a shared responsibility for all citizens.

I would like to start a discussion with a few plausible solutions, which are in the purview of local residents and voters.

  • Whatcom PUD#1 / City of Bellingham shall relinquish water rights for 1 bgpy (out of 76 bgpy) in the favor of rural residents. This will cover almost all the rural lots for the next thirty years.
  • All tax-payers shall bear the cost to truck 6,000 gallons of clean potable water every month in perpetuity to every lot affected by supreme court decision, from the nearest city or potable water purveyor in the county.
  • The exempt well owners to start a “water bank.” which will have more water than the City of Bellingham uses per day. This can then be a shared water resource for all rural residents.
  • Whatcom PUD may contribute 1 bgpy of its water rights to the “water bank.”
  • Credit some water saved by drip irrigation practices by local farmers to the “water bank.”

For any comments and more information, email ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us

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Satpal S. Sidhu is Whatcom County Councilmember for District 2.

 

 

 

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