FILE - Northwest storm

Passersby surround a car whose driver went past a barricade and into the flooded Nooksack River on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Ferndale, Wash.

(The Center Square) – In the aftermath of November’s devastating floods in Whatcom County, Washington, a local farming advocacy group is calling for a wide-ranging approach to prevent another weather-related disaster.

Whatcom Family Farmers (WFF) wants to see water storage, river sediment removal, levy and other waterway improvements, and protection of farmlands addressed by the state government.

“A comprehensive effort to pursue all possible solutions to this water management problem, the failures that led to it, and the crises it creates, must begin immediately,” WFF President Rich Appel wrote in a Jan. 5 opinion piece for the Bellingham Herald.

Such an approach is meant to not only solve those problems but head off a lengthy and expensive court battle through an adjudication process.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, adjudication is “a process that brings all users in a watershed into one big court process that leads to full and fair water management by confirming legal rights to use water. The process legally and permanently determines everyone’s water rights in that area. It creates certainty around water use and helps secure water for future use.”

Dillon Honcoop, WFF communications director, isn’t buying it, noting that water rights adjudication would stymie flood-fix projects by tying things up in court for some time.

He suggests a collaborative effort between all parties that avoids a protracted court battle.

“We’d love to see a coalition form around this,” he said. “We need as many voices as possible moving forward on that. We need real solutions.”

Among the problems in need of a solution is better water storage in the Nooksack River Basin. There was significantly less flooding in the neighboring Skagit River system during November’s flooding thanks to its water storage capacity in the Cascades.

The city of Mount Vernon in Skagit County was “spared by its water storage system,” Honcoop explained, noting “flood waters would have been six feet higher without its water storage capacity.”

Better water storage in Whatcom County would have benefits beyond lessening the impact of floods, according to Honcoop. The storage could save water during a deluge and make it available during dry summer months to meet other needs, including fish and farming.

“We have too much water in the winter and not enough in the summer,” he said. “Time is wasting here.”

Honcoop retained some optimism regarding help from the state. He pointed to Gov. Jay Inslee advocating for the state to fund creation of more water storage, including comments this past summer by Department of Ecology (DOE) Director Laura Watson.

“And so, water storage – as the governor was talking about – we need to defeat climate change to be really able to defeat climate change and to be really able to defeat and really tackle these issues,” Watson said at a July 14 press conference. “Another thing we need to do is to prepare for drought resilience. And so, one of the key tools for preparing for drought resilience is to build water storage so that when we’re in drought years there is a water capacity that can be tapped.”

Honcoop also had some kind words for Inslee’s legislative and policy proposals aimed at protecting and restoring the state’s salmon population. Some advocates for the iconic fish have criticized the governor’s proposed supplemental 2022 budget for falling short on funding to restore fish habitat.

Part of Inslee’s plan includes what he calls green infrastructure that would capture and store excess water during times of high stream flows, then cool the water to an optimal temperature for salmon and release it during low flows.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” on this one, Honcoop urged.

Another major issue that needs to be addressed according to Honcoop is sediment management.

Gravel and sediment in the Nooksack River in western Whatcom County can be handled to minimize any harm to salmon, according to Honcoop. He wants to prevent sediment buildup that reduces water flow capacity and even chokes some waterways.

“Dredging is different than sediment management,” Honcoop said.

The former is the removal of sediments and debris from the bottoms of bodies of water, while the latter involves minimizing sediment production in the catchment – the action of collecting water, especially the collection of rainfall over a natural drainage area – through erosion control methods and trapping sediment before it reaches the reservoir.

WFF also advocates for maintaining and improving key levees to lessen the risk of flooding and to protect fish, as well as preserving farmland for agricultural purposes.

“Farmers are ready and willing to be part of the solution, but they can’t if their land is converted to development due to a lack of secure access to water,” Appel wrote in his piece in the Herald. “That’s why the Department of Ecology’s plans to sue water rights holders in the Nooksack drainage are so harmful, and never more so than when farms and families are literally underwater.”

Based on the Inslee administration’s public support for more water storage, as well as some elements of its salmon recovery plan, Honcoop is hopeful for less red tape from the DOE and more state funding for programs and projects meant to lessen the impact of flooding in the region.

“It’s devastating for farming, and the community, and the environment,” he said of last fall’s historic flooding resulting from multiple "atmospheric rivers" that filled many land-based rivers to bursting.

Staff Reporter

Brett Davis reports on Washington state government for The Center Square. He previously worked for public policy organizations the Freedom Foundation and Washington Farm Bureau, as well as various community newspapers.