The group tasked with ensuring that locals have a say over water rights in Whatcom County will continue work on a Watershed Management Plan Update despite the fact that it will probably miss its Jan. 15th deadline. Given the choice between turning in an incomplete report or a late report, the group has decided to go with a late report.
On Dec. 12, 2018, the Planning Unit (PU) for WRIA 1 – the Water Resource Inventory Area that includes the Nooksack River basin and Lake Whatcom – voted to continue working on the effort to come up with a Plan Update and not to worry about the timeline. The vote also included preparing an index of the work that has been done, sending a letter to the Dept. of Ecology to inform them the plan update is not done but is being worked on, and sending a letter to the legislators expressing the same.
The following caucuses voted in favor: Agriculture, Diking/Drainage, Environmental, Fishers, Forestry, Land Development, Non-Government Water Systems, Port of Bellingham, Private Well Owners, Public Utility District #1, and Water Districts.
None were opposed. Two caucuses abstained: Small Cities and Whatcom County. The State Caucus recused themselves from the vote.
The WRIA 1 Watershed Management Plan (WMP) completed in 2005 provides a road map for addressing water quantity, water quality, in-stream flow, and fish habitat challenges. Under ESSB 6091 / RCW 90.94, the Plan Update must also address consumptive use impacts to stream flow caused by new domestic groundwater permit exempt wells over the next 20 years. The update needs to be adopted by the Department of Ecology by February 1, 2019. To meet that deadline, local approvals of the Plan Update would be needed by the County Council and the Planning Unit no later than Jan. 15th. The Planning Unit is working with the Watershed Management Board and Watershed Staff Team to write the update.
It has become obvious to all parties involved that the Initiating Governments and Caucuses of the WRIA 1 Planning Unit would not be able to reach an agreement on policy issues such as mandatory metering before the deadline. The City and the Tribes refused to participate in the Planning Unit process and demanded that new policies be added for new, permit-exempt, domestic groundwater wells. On Nov. 28th, the Planning Unit ignored these demands and passed a policy package with fees, daily usage and metering requirements unchanged from current law.
- Policy Issues – While there appears to be agreement among the Initiating Government groups (IGs) on water offsets and metering (150% and mandatory metering), there is not agreement on net-ecological benefit, fees, and water-use limitations; resolution of those positions is unlikely to be accomplished in the time remaining. The policy package voted on by the Planning Unit is to leave the fees and water use allocation as currently provided in the Stream Restoration Act and to implement voluntary metering as part of the Monitoring and Adaptive Management component of the Plan Update.
Initiating Governments consist of Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham, and PUD #1. Whatcom County is the “lead agency”. (RCW 90.82.060 (3) and (8). The Initiating Governments exist not as an entity, only as participants in the Planning Unit.
- Net-Ecological Benefit – There are differences in perspective among the IGs and Planning Unit caucuses on the ecological effects evaluation and conclusions from the November 20, 2018, draft WMP and the approach for incorporating the information into the WMP.
- Alternative Plan Update Version – Some of the PU Caucuses drafted an alternative Plan Update that significantly alters, reduces, or eliminates technical information currently covered in several sections of the draft Watershed Staff Team (WST) Plan Update, including the ecological effects evaluation and uncertainty analysis. Having two versions of the draft WMP – the Nov 20th WST Plan Update and the PU Caucuses alternative Plan Update – makes it unlikely that the substantive comments can be addressed and two-update versions reconciled within the given timeline.
On Dec. 6th, the Watershed Staff Team agreed it was clear there are major differences of opinions on these policy issues, and recommended to the Planning Unit and WRIA 1 Management Team that the information completed thus far should be packaged and submitted to Ecology unfinished. At the Dec. 12th meeting the Planning Unit voted against the WST recommendation and made the motion to continue working on the WMP Update and acknowledged that the deadline will not be met.
Throughout the planning process caucus members have expressed concern about losing the chance to provide local input if they miss the deadline. Seeing how this was likely, the Management Team sent a letter to Ecology with questions related to missing the Feb 1, 2019 deadline. A response from Ecology was received November 13th.
According to the response, if Ecology does not adopt a plan update by Feb. 1st, it would proceed to write rules to meet the requirements of RCW 90.94.020. Ecology would have the authority to initiate rulemaking under all its existing authorities, and the scope of rulemaking would likely be affected and informed by work that is completed by the Planning Unit before the Feb. 1, 2019 deadline. Ecology would consider all available information, including materials developed by the planning group, to develop supporting documents during the rulemaking process. Ecology would continue to engage with interested members of the Initiating Governments and Planning Unit, but would have limited opportunities due to the strict deadline.