Sunday, September 30, 2007

WRIA-1: Whatcom County's Unfinished Water Business

'We'll know the price of water when the well runs dry' - Ben Franklin
Most people probably don't know what WRIA-1 stands for, but that's OK with Whatcom County's current administration.

It stands for 'Water Resource Inventory Area Number 1', legalese for describing a contiguous stream course and its tributaries which together make up a definite drainage basin, or a well-defined portion of one.

Washington State has identified 63 of these WRIA's and numbered them sequentially, starting at the upper left hand corner of our state map.
That would be us, and the River in question the Nooksack, its main branches and smaller tributaries.

Of interest is the fact that Lake Whatcom is only counted in WRIA-1 because of the man-made diversion that helps resupply it from the Middle Fork of the Nooksack.
Also, the area around Blaine is excluded because its drainage doesn'tempty directly into the Nooksack system.

Why is knowing about all this stuff important?
Several reasons come to mind, including things like water quantity, water quality, adequate in-stream flows to support salmon and other aquatic life, and identifying and preserving habitat for fish and other wildlife.
All of these things work together, and each must not be considered in isolation of the others to sustain a healthy ecosystem that benefits everyone.

Ah, but there is a danger in knowing too much about this subject!
If one knows that problems have impacted this delicate balance, and these are still happening -unchecked- then there will be pressure to stop poor practices and re-think what makes sense.
There are some interests who don't want to go there!

You know the type.
The '3-D' crowd.
That defines the 3 stages of resistance to change;
first, deny its needed,
next, decry suggested corrective action will work, be fair, or be too expensive,
and when that fails, delay any corrective action for as long as possible.
That's what has happened with WRIA-1.
The program is stalled out with most of its funding gone, key staff missing and little impetus being shown to re-start the effort, despite the fact that the first phases have already costs Whatcom County taxpayers almost $4.5 million over several years!

Why do you imagine this has happened?
WRIA-1 seemed to have everything going for it upon its inception several years ago.
Of course, WRIA-1 was not the first time this work was undertaken.
Other efforts, through the Council of Governments, had tried and lost steam too.

The WRIA-1 effort got legs for a few reasons.
One was State Legislation related to salmon.
Another was the Department of Ecology was finally nudged into action to correct its lack of backbone in awarding water rights.
It seems over time, the DOE had awarded about 2.5 times more water rights than could possible exist!
Water rights is too big a subject to cover in this writing - or maybe any writing that most folks would read.
Suffice to say that water rights has been one of those 'third rails' of politics that elected officials and bureaucrats just don't want much to do with!
So, it doesn't get dealt with, and that's the problem.

It is the old question of which interests like things just as they are, against those who are in touch with the reality that things can't continue to remain as they seem.
Bottom line is in Whatcom County we will run out of water before we run out of land!
There, I said the unthinkable.
Believe it or not, it's true.

Beginning to get the picture now?
A lack of available water restricts the use of land.
And, it doesn't make any difference what the use is.

Agriculture, for example, because that's easy.
Development in the form of cities, farms, businesses all require water for drinking, firefighting, lawn watering, bathing, washing, cooking and recreation
All that adds up fast.

Then, there is the special problem of so-called 'exempt wells', which essentially means going through the charade of petitioning for a well to pump groundwater -whether it exists or not- to irrigate land, including lawns.
Bingo! That is the key to regulating sprawl.
By what logic can any agency continue to grant water rights that don't exist, to every applicant for an 'exempt well'?
Answer: there is no logic, only bureaucratic inertia and ineptitude, backed up by a monumental lack of political will!

OK, so now you understand a little more about what has stopped work on a big governmental project that you had had never heard about before.
Want to hear just a little more?
If so, read below the dotted line.
WRIA-1 was supposed to be the shining example of how such a process was to proceed.
It was set up as a stakeholder's process, where all interested parties had a place at the table.
The idea was to systematically develop a consensual agreement on water matters that would stand the test of time.

Compromise was an essential element.
Avoiding the protracted legal battles that typify most other such programs was another major incentive.
Basically, the idea was to make the WRIA-1 process so attractive to every interest, so that all would be drawn into hammering out agreements they could live with.
That attraction had to be stronger than just staying away from the process.
It was the proverbial carrot and stick approach.

And it took time.
God, did it take time!
Because time usually equates to money, using too much time took too much money.
Some people knew that would -or could- happen, and used it to stall out the program.
But, that tactic would not have worked had there been more political will exerted by the leaders.

Who were these leaders, you might ask?

They were the heads of the so-called 5 'Initiating Governments', including Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham, Public Utility District No. 1, The Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack Tribe.
The two tribes were there by their agreement, to have input and oversight to the process without necessarily committing to any outcomes that might not have been seen in their best interests.
But, the tribes participation was critical, because they hold senior water rights.
And they did actively participate.

Bellingham was there as the largest population center, and as the entity with the next senior water rights.

Whatcom County and PUD-1 were there because they were the two governmental entities with countywide jurisdiction.

Whatcom County was the lead agency because Washington State Law says that counties are the governments which hold that right.

So, those were the main players.
But, there were many others.
State agencies of several acronyms, DOE, WDFW, DNR, etc
Professional staff from County, City, PUD-1, the Tribes
Caucuses representing several interest groups, but that's another story.

That's probably enough boilerplate for now.
Maybe too much for some?
Bottom line is, after such an auspicious start, WRIA-1 has essentially died -at least gone into deep hibernation.
What was once the shining example of what could be accomplished in the State of Washington has become just another rather dull subject that some would relegate to dim history.

What had shown such promise as a comprehensive tool to help plan our future, has become a mountain of shelf art, collecting dust somewhere in the bowels of a County building.
What had been a stellar professional staff, assembled at great expense and with great hopes, has been depleted, reassigned and mainly forgotten for the hard work they accomplished.

But, the very substantial information developed is still there, waiting for the time some courageous County Executive has the impulse to touch a 'third rail' again.
When that happens, let's hope its not too late to make a useful difference1