Birch Bay official criticizes county’s water planning

Published on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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Birch Bay Water and Sewer District (BBWSD) officials are worried an updated water strategy for the lower Nooksack River basin will cut smaller cities and water districts, like Birch Bay’s, out of the water rights conversation.

Whatcom County Council voted 7-0 at its September 13 meeting to help fund an updated water planning strategy for the region. Nearly $400,000 will be spent to develop a plan to identify future water supply needs and help municipalities and water districts determine how best to fund water infrastructure improvements.

“There is a growing realization that water supply and water security, that is, water where you need it, when you need it, is the essential economic driver of our region,” Whatcom County Public Utility District #1 general manager Steve Jilk said. The PUD will be responsible for developing the plan.

However, BBWSD general manager Roger Brown is concerned.

A week before the council vote, Brown sent a letter to Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen expressing his concern with the part of the plan called the Lower Nooksack Strategy. Brown’s main issue was that the strategy contained no mention of an existing planning unit that ensured the Nooksack basin’s water districts and small cities were not left out of the planning process.

The planning unit is important for two reasons, Brown said. It gives the small cities and water districts in the lower Nooksack basin a voice in water rights planning and gives the public a chance to see how that planning is progressing. Without the planning unit, Brown said the larger stakeholders in the basin, such as the city of Bellingham and the Whatcom County government, have the potential to control water rights issues for most of the county with only their interests in mind.

“[The planning unit] is a place where you can get some transparency,” Brown said.

However, the last time Whatcom County convened a planning unit meeting was June 30, 2009; more than two years ago. Though a vote to disband the planning unit at that  meeting failed, Brown said the updated Lower Nooksack Strategy contains no mention of its continued existence.

In his letter, Brown also questioned the amount of money the county has spent in trying to reach water rights agreements with the various parties involved. The watershed management plan for the lower Nooksack basin was developed over seven years, from 1998 to 2005, at significant cost to the county and should not necessarily be superseded by the Lower Nooksack Strategy, Brown argued.

Jon Hutchings, the assistant director of Whatcom County Public Works, said the planning unit is still in existence and county officials do not intend to disband it. Hutchings said the group has become less active as water rights negotiations have slowed over the past few years but maintained that Whatcom County is committed to giving BBWSD and the area’s other water districts and small cities a place at the discussion table.

Brown preferred not to offer an opinion on what would happen if the county continues water rights planning without convening the planning unit. He is relatively confident the county will talk to representatives from the small cities and water districts before any major water planning decisions are made.

“At this point, [the Birch Bay Water and Sewer District] is standing up for the process that’s established,” Brown said. “I don’t want to jump ahead to the hypothetical.”