Ecology officially begins Nooksack adjudication


After years of preliminary work, the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) filed for a general adjudication of the Nooksack watershed in Whatcom County Superior Court on May 1, officially starting the lengthy legal process for water rights.

The Nooksack watershed, or Water Resource Inventory Area 1, as DOE refers to it, covers western Whatcom County, with the exception of two small areas south of Bellingham, and parts of north Skagit County. Water adjudication is the process of determining, through the courts, who has priority of rights.

The DOE expects the adjudication process to involve claims from 30,000 unique water users including local governments, the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe, and anyone who uses surface or groundwater outside of municipal services.

Those who use water through a municipal utility such as Blaine or Birch Bay Water and Sewer District will not need to make a claim.

Affected water users will not have to act until DOE issues a legal summons in the summer, sent via certified mail to every person claiming a water right, according to a May 2 DOE press release.

After receiving the summons, water users will have one year to return the claim form with supporting evidence.

“The legal process is a necessary step to resolve water management issues so that we can plan for future water supply needs of this growing region,” wrote Robin McPherson, DOE’s adjudication manager, in a statement “Ecology is committed to providing a variety of ways to help people understand and participate in the process.”

The Nooksack River has never had such a demand, which is why DOE determined it to be in need of legal clarification on who gets a claim to the water.

With a growing population, warming environment, treaty obligations for local tribes to salmon, and the roughly 1,500 farms that use Nooksack water to irrigate over 100,000 acres of farmland, DOE – and the state legislature – agreed that an adjudication was required.

One group that will be heavily impacted by the adjudication are county farmers who are worried about their ability to legally use enough water to irrigate crops.

Whatcom Family Farmers, a local agriculture interest group, released a statement immediately following DOE’s official filing, describing the adjudication as “a sad moment for our farming community.”

“This action will undoubtedly lead to many of our farms exiting,” the statement read. “Without the certainty of water access, farms will disappear and rural sprawl will accelerate. We hope this threat to the fabric of Whatcom County finally spurs some action to protect our farms.”

The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe have senior water rights in the Nooksack basin to preserve its federally protected fishing rights as agreed in the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott.

For more information on the process, visit, call 360/225-4406, or reach out via email at


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