The group tasked with assuring that locals have a say over water rights in Whatcom County is refusing to change fees, daily usage and metering requirements for new rural well owners.
On Nov. 28, the Planning Unit for WRIA1 – the Water Resource Inventory Area designated by state law that includes the Nooksack River basin and Lake Whatcom – passed a policy package for its Watershed Management Plan update with fees, daily usage and metering requirements unchanged from current law. It passed 8-to-2 with 3 caucuses abstaining. The Fishers and Environmental Caucuses voted no.
The WRIA1 Planning Unit consists of 5-Initiating Governments – Whatcom County, Public Utility District No. 1, City of Bellingham, Lummi Tribe and Nooksack Tribe – as well as non-government caucuses. The City and the Tribes have refused to participate in the Planning Unit process or attend any of the meetings, but they demanded that it add new policies for new permit-exempt domestic groundwater wells.
The WRIA 1 Watershed Management Plan was completed in 2005 and provides a roadmap for addressing water quantity, water quality, in-stream flow, and fish habitat challenges. An update to the plan is due by February 1, 2019, and the policy package is a subset of the plan.
In January 2018, the state legislature passed ESSB 6091 (now RCW 90.94) – the so called Hirst Fix law – which allowed the County to remove a building moratorium it had placed on projects using permit-exempt domestic groundwater wells for their water source. The law includes a new $500 permit fee on new wells, allowing an annual use limit of 3,000 gallons per day, and no metering requirements.
The Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe, and the Fishers and Environmental Caucuses wanted meters on private wells. The Environmental Caucus also wanted water withdrawal (aka daily water use) lowered to 350-500 gallons per day.
Perry Eskridge with the Land Use Caucus said that the Planning Unit has 3 duties under ESSB 6091: identify potential impacts of exempt well use, identify evidence-based conservation efforts, and identify projects to improve the health of the watershed. It’s under no obligation to change fees or add metering requirements.
With weeks to go before the deadline, many caucus members expressed frustration about how the City and Tribes seem intent on bogging down the planning process with these discussions of policy issues. If the Planning Unit cannot agree on a plan update by Feb. 1, the state Dept. of Ecology will write the new rules without local input.