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) – The mayors of five cities in rural Whatcom County recently sent a joint letter to the directors of four state agencies asking them to implement water management solutions in the Nooksack River basin to address floods, drought and other problems.

“We are writing because we are concerned that the attention of your agencies is focused on other priorities and issues of concern to you, while the crisis we face with water management in the Nooksack River basin goes virtually unnoticed,” the letter states.

It was signed by the mayors of Everson, Ferndale, Nooksack, Lynden and Sumas and sent to the directors of the departments of Ecology, Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife and Agriculture.

During the summer of 2021, a heatwave and ensuing drought damaged crops and livestock and low water levels in the area accounted for the death of more than 2,500 salmon. Flooding in the fall damaged hundreds of homes and killed more than 50 animals.

At issue is the state’s focus on water rights.

The Department of Ecology is preparing to file court documents, known as an adjudication, that could impact some 5,400 land owners in the area and force them to defend their water rights.

According to the department, obtaining water rights is necessary to use any amount of surface water from a river, stream, spring or lake for any purpose. Water rights are also required to use groundwater from a well with certain exceptions, unless it is less than 5,000 gallons per day for domestic or commercial use or for irrigation of a lawn or non-commercial garden that is smaller than one-half acre.

The case could take 15 years to sort out and leave farmers with an uncertain future.

“How do you expect farmers to plan for the future when they may or may not have water?” Whatcom Family Farmers Executive Director Fred Likkel asked Capital Press in 2020. “We have a lot of pressure on our land for development. This is going to drastically accelerate that pressure.”

A similar case in Yakima County involving 2,300 landowners took 40 years to complete.

“Instead of focusing on the entirely predictable twin problems of too much water in the river and streams at one time of the year, and too little at other times, your agencies have focused on issues that will do little to nothing to protect our salmon runs, protect water for our farms and citizens and protect our communities against these recurring low instream flows and devastating floods,” the mayors’ letter said. “Your attention is all the more urgent because we are informed by experts that climate change is virtually certain to make these twin problems even worse.”