Op-Ed: A Drought Plan for Whatcom County, but Without Public Process…

In Common Voices, Information Sources by Kris Halterman

This year has seen lower than usual rainfall locally, which has led Governor Inslee to add Whatcom County (actually, the Nooksack Watershed, aka WRIA 1*) to the list of state areas already under a drought emergency declaration.

By itself, the Governor’s declaration does not provide the robust response that a serious drought would warrant. What is needed is a local plan, understood and supported by the public, which guides preparation for drought years during years prior to a drought, and effective drought responses when one occurs.

Recognizing this need, in April 2016 the Public Utility District #1 of Whatcom County (PUD) applied for a grant from the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) under its WaterSMART Program to develop a drought plan. The application was supported by a PUD- selected group of local residents including some elected officials and representatives of a few water resource interests.</style=”text-align:right”>

The result, a 119-page draft Whatcom County Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) dated March 2019.

The manner in which the DCP was produced, and the operational and administrative framework upon which it is based, raises questions as to the probability of broad public acceptance. Such a plan needs that acceptance if it is to be successful in coping with future water supply shortages that could severely impact our economy and way of life.

While the draft DCP proclaims it is the product of a diverse group of stakeholders, in fact it was developed by a Task Force (TF) appointed by PUD general manager Steve Jilk. Of the TF’s twenty members, 16 are government agency personnel (14-local, 2-state), while another is a contractor for the PUD. Eric Hirst is one of the few non-government TF members.

The TF developed the DCP during a series of closed-door meetings. The written records of these meetings, if there are any, have not been released to the public. There has been no widespread public notice of the process or opportunity for public comment.

The DCP carves out a significant role for the Sheriff Department’s Division of Emergency Management, including assistance with water rationing, but no member of the Sheriff’s staff is listed as a participant on the TF. The DCP also provides a role for the Washington State Military Department Emergency Management Division.

The 14 local agency personnel who serve as TF members have been acting as individuals, without formal approval of their actions by the legislative bodies of the jurisdictions they work for. Thus, any person who feels injured by any action undertaken while implementing the DCP may have no formal recourse to the governments involved, hence, no due process, no accountability.

The PUD has not sought County Council review or approval for the draft plan. The DCP claims public outreach will take place through the Whatcom Watersheds Information Network. Do you even know what that is?

The PUD appears to have no explicit statutory or other authority to initiate, develop, nor implement such a plan.

The BOR apparently issues these types of grants based on whether the applicant is among a list of of agencies that are preapproved to apply – without requiring approval from the county council.

The PUD intends to ask the WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board (WMB) – which consists of the executives of the county, Bellingham, PUD, the two tribes and the small cities, to approve the DCP. The WMB has no statutory authority to issue such an approval. Because many of the 14 local agency TF members also serve as staff to the WMB, its approval is likely to be automatic.

Its advocates say the DCP is only voluntary. But the DCP provides on page 89 that the TF can “… prioritize specific mitigation measures and develop specific plans to implement those measures in Whatcom County.” So, if and/or when “voluntary” proves unpopular, hence ineffective, how long will it remain voluntary?

When I raised some of these issues with US BOR, the PUD’s reaction was caustic and defensive.

In a memo to the TF dated August 30, a PUD representative said: “Taking an obstructionist approach to community problem solving is never the answer to collaborative work.” Since when does calling out disregard of established public processes qualify as obstructionism?

The PUD rep went on to say, “Ownership and control by individuals for that purpose is not the way we reach those common goals.” Does submitting comments to a public agency constitute asserting ownership and control of anything? The criticism applies to the critic: The PUD staff and their handpicked Task Force are the individuals who have attempted to assert ownership and control over a matter that concerns the entire community.

We, the people, need a drought plan. And we, the people should have a say in the content of the plan, and how it will be implemented.

What should concerned, citizens do? Ask your local elected officials, including the Sheriff and PUD commissioners, to demand that the PUD bring the draft DCP before their legislative bodies for public review and approval prior to any further action by the TF.

` by Skip Richards, provider of professional consulting services on water issues in WRIA 1 since 1994.