I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in several meetings last week in northwest Washington state to work with local farmers and community leaders on water issues facing this farming community. Whatcom County is the far northwest corner of the continental U.S., bounded on the west by the upper Puget Sound, with the foothills of the Cascade mountains rising 50 miles to the east.
It is a remarkably beautiful farming area which reminded me of the farming communities in Wisconsin, where I grew up. The 100,000 acres of rich farmland are supported by a moderate climate with abundant rainfall. This area provides the bulk of the nation’s raspberries but also blueberries, dairy and seed potatoes.
“Dairies and berries”, is how the locals respond when you ask them what types of commodities are produced. And “spuds”.
The several hundred area farmers are united under a group formed in 2015 called Whatcom Family Farmers. It was this group that invited me to share collaborative experiences and provide insight into how other Western farmers, ranchers and water managers are addressing water challenges.
A number of significant challenges to farming here have brought together farmers of different types into a unified public effort to secure their future. The most significant concern right now is water rights. That was a bit surprising to me, given that the region is inundated with water (this is the Pacific Northwest, after all).
During the heavy storms of last November, the Nooksack River that flows through the farmland spilled over its banks and flooded the border community of Sumas, where one life was lost and over 2,000 homes were damaged. Across the border with neighboring Canada, flood damages exceeded one billion dollars.
Despite this abundance of water in winter months, the Washington Department of Ecology is on track to adjudicate all local water rights, based on requests from the two local Native American tribes. That’s because last summer stream flows in upper reaches of the watershed can drop to a point that fish populations are harmed. The Department of Ecology has set a minimum flow requirement that often can’t be met by the low-flowing Nooksack in late-summer months. So, farmers are rightly concerned that the adjudication process will result in curtailment of water for irrigation.
Even though most farmers irrigate using abundant replenishable water, the adjudication would still apply to them, since the state Supreme Court has ruled that extracting water from a well is essentially the same as taking it from a stream or river.
Whatcom farmers recognize that tribal treaty rights stand tall in politics and the law, particularly in the Western states. They seek to convince the state that a more locally-driven County effort aimed at a negotiated settlement is the preferred path forward. Unfortunately, this approach is not currently supported by one of the tribes.
The May 25 meeting included presentations from renowned national water rights attorney Ramsey Kropf from the Somach Simmons and Dunn law firm (Boulder, Colorado) and Washington water rights attorney Bill Clarke (Olympia). I was also asked to speak and provide some “hope and guidance” based on experiences of Family Farm Alliance members in other areas of the West.
In turn, I learned a lot from these farmers and farm leaders in just a few short days. The crisis facing Whatcom family farmers is yet another example of the threats to the future of our family farms in the West. It’s been a real privilege to work for an organization like the Family Farm Alliance, which exists for this very purpose – to help lay the groundwork and provide support for locals as they fight for the future of their family farms.
The local newspaper did a nice job capturing the comments made by all of the presenters at the community meeting on the evening of May 25 in this story. I was also interviewed for a 40-minute segment of “The Farming Show”, a radio program hosted by KGMI, 790 A.M. in Bellingham.
Whatcom County and towns like Lynden truly are farming communities. The grassroots unity of the farmers, their multi-generation commitment to these farms, and their willingness to reach out to other sectors of the community to gain much-needed public support are commendable.
It gives me optimism for the future of this area and the viability of these farms.