Guest Commentaries

Guest Commentary: Farmers support collaborative water-rights process

'Water scarcity’ arguments fall flat
May 25, 2022 at 4:45 a.m.

By Fred Likkel, Executive Director, Whatcom Family Farmers

Does Whatcom County have a water scarcity problem?

In a May 4 guest column, local environmental activist Eric Hirst claims that it does, and presents cherry-picked data in an attempt to support his argument, but he conveniently leaves out key facts that make his long-running narrative about local water supply fall flat yet again.

Climate change is indeed resulting in drier summers in the Nooksack River basin, but it’s also characterized by increasingly wet winters, as experts have predicted. What should be obvious to anyone who is aware of the devastating floods Whatcom County experienced last winter — just a few months after a drought — is that Whatcom’s issues aren’t related to water shortages, but rather water management. As the climate continues to change, we can only expect these extremes to worsen unless we put water management solutions in place.

River gauge data not precise

The first flaw of Hirst’s argument is that it relies on river gauge data to document a decreased flow in the river. Those engaged in discussions surrounding river management and flooding can tell you that these gauges are highly inaccurate. Sediment on the bottom of the river is shifting continually, which creates a constant challenge in predicting river flows. Hirst cannot paint an accurate picture using this data.

Second, Hirst’s claim that the farming community’s water use accounts for “70% of the summer total” is deceptive, belying the minimal, overall impact farming irrigation has in the Nooksack basin’s water supply. While his column fails to clarify, local farms’ water use doesn’t even come close to 70% of the water moving through the basin, as his words could appear to the average reader. 

The facts? Independent researchers' data show farming uses about 6% of the basin’s water, with the vast majority of it coming from groundwater wells, leaving only 1.2% of surface water in the basin directly impacted by agricultural use. Local experts analyzing the data can show that if all surface water use on farms was stopped, the Nooksack River level would rise by less than a quarter of an inch.

Third, Hirst argues that to bolster stream flows to aid fish, farms need to become more efficient in their water use, falsely suggesting that farmers are not already taking water use efficiency seriously. This is troubling not only because Hirst knows full well that farms have embraced water use efficiency, but also because the impact of any theoretical efficiency gains would be negligible. If shutting off all farming use would impact the Nooksack’s level by less than a quarter-inch, a hypothetical 25% efficiency gain would raise the river by less than one-sixteenth of an inch, and any benefit to fish so insignificant it would be impossible to measure.

Antiquated laws hinder progress

The primary challenge, as Hirst himself has previously conceded, isn’t farmers embracing water use efficiency, but the antiquated law of “relinquishment,” which actually punishes farms for reporting any efficiency gains. Because of this law, farms face losing water access if they report using less than their legal allotment. Instead of being able to move this legally allotted water to other areas that may be deficient, farms must instead give this excess back to the state. 

Fourth, the claim that farmers are stealing water is deeply misleading. Again, antiquated laws and inaction by state leaders have left farmers in an impossible predicament, making it very difficult to move or make changes to their water allotments as cropland and ownership changes hands. Most likely, about half of our area’s farmers are affected by this challenge, but that most certainly does not mean 50% of farm water use is illegal, as Hirst’s column unfairly insinuates.

Finally, Hirst’s column accuses farmers of providing no alternatives to the multi-decade state lawsuit — called a water rights adjudication — which he argues is the only way to solve the basin’s water woes. This is demonstrably false. Farmers in the basin have consistently worked on ways to improve fish habitat and streamflow for more than 20 years, and have shared numerous examples publicly. 

All parties needed at table

More work is needed, but in order to continue progress, all parties need to be at the table discussing proposed solutions. While other parties have repeatedly walked away from discussions on these admittedly challenging issues, the farming community has been consistent in its support of continuing conversations to address these complicated concerns.  

The adjudication lawsuit Hirst is calling for would take decades in court and could take a half-billion dollars or more in legal fees out of state and city coffers, as well as the pockets of Whatcom County’s water users. But the process will do absolutely nothing to address the Nooksack’s twin problems of too much water in the winter and too little in the summer. 

The farming community continues to strongly support a collaborative process and wants to help reach the real community-wide solutions that a comprehensive water settlement can achieve. Sadly, the misinformation in Hirst’s guest commentary obscures the real issues and only serves to hamper collaboration.

Cascadia Daily News welcomes guest commentaries of 800 words or less. Email:

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