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Whatcom water rights process delayed by months

County could lose out on $700K due to delay challenges

Adjudication in the Nooksack River watershed has been delayed until spring 2024 while state agencies prepare for the potentially decades-long legal process.
Adjudication in the Nooksack River watershed has been delayed until spring 2024 while state agencies prepare for the potentially decades-long legal process.
By Julia Lerner Staff Reporter

The state-sponsored adjudication process in Whatcom County, slated to begin later this summer, has been delayed until spring 2024, county and state officials confirmed Wednesday, Aug. 2.

The change in the process, noted in meeting minutes of a July 18 water works session, comes after months of preparation at the state level — though Washington State Department of Ecology employees said the complicated undertaking requires more time. 

Adjudication — the legal process to determine who has rights to water from the Nooksack River — has been controversial in the county, where local tribes and agricultural water users clash on Nooksack River management. 

Water rights, granted by the state, allow the holder to legally use a specific amount of water each year. In Whatcom County, farmers are the “dominant water user” in the region, accounting for 70% of summer usage totals, according to retired energy policy analyst Eric Hirst. After the adjudication process, though, agricultural users may be required to use less. 

At this point, Ecology estimates staff will be able to begin the legal filings next spring. 

“There’s a lot of moving pieces here, and it’s a big project,” Jimmy Norris, communications manager in the water resources division at Ecology, said Wednesday. “It’s just a matter of us making sure we have all the pieces in place.” 

Those pieces, Norris said, include community outreach, hiring staff to manage the process and allowing time for a public comment process. 

Funds from the state Legislature, committed to both Ecology and Whatcom County, will help the state with hiring enough staff to manage the process. The county received about $350,000 per year for the next two years — $700,000 total — for “furthering the collaborative process,” Whatcom County Natural Resources Program Manager Gary Stoyka said. 

“It could be used for technical studies, for facilitation or for other things like that to help facilitate a discussion on finding big-picture solutions,” Stoyka said. 

The delay could pose challenges for the county in spending those funds, though. The funds set aside for the county must be used by the end of each fiscal year — June 30 — but cannot be used until Ecology begins filing. 

“It’s money we don’t have access to until Ecology files adjudication,” Stoyka said. “The longer it takes them to file it, the longer it takes us to get that money.” 

Stoyka said the county is looking for creative ways to “make use of that money as soon as possible,” though. 

The county expects to receive additional funds from Ecology to supplement the $700,000.

Otherwise, the delay could be a boon to Whatcom residents, many of whom oppose the adjudication process. 

“It’s definitely a benefit to people,” Stoyka said. “It’s a benefit to the county and to all the people who will be involved in the adjudication because they’ll have more time to prepare.” 

The adjudication process could take years, if not decades, to complete. Ecology staffers recently completed a similar adjudication process in Yakima, where the state hashed out claims over three decades. 

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