Water, Water Everywhere, but ...

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Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 1:57 pm  //  Terry Wechsler

Kudos to Rome Grange and the local Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights (yes, I am saying kudos) for the excellent Water Forum today at the public library. The panel included representatives of the Whatcom County Council, COB, PUD, ECOL, and ag.

It was a longish format, but that allowed each panelist to speak for at least 10 minutes, with an hour remaining for questions. Panelists were asked to respond to specific questions, including 1) identifying key issues, and 2) weighing in on the county council's water action plan. This is just the briefest takeaway of the conference.

Panelists generally agreed with Carl Weimer's prioritization of the issues:

  • lack of sustainable salmon fisheries
  • bacterial pollution of surface waters, particularly in Portage Bay
  • stormwater runoff
  • phosphorus levels in Lake Whatcom (must be reduced 87%)
  • groundwater pollution, particularly nitrates in the Sumas/Abbotsford/Blaine aquifer
  • sorting out water rights and clarifying the issue of whether exempt wells are an "additional water withdrawal" and
  • flood drainage

No one thought the council's water action plan was a bad idea. Carl, its author, thought it was particularly brilliant. With 300 or so pendiing approaches to addressing our issues, prioritization is key so we can resolve to do the most important things, and then fund the doing, according to Carl.

Putting the pieces together, a gross generalization of the main takeaway would be:

  1. we have plenty of water, yet we have major contstraints in the northern part of the county due to the level of nitrate pollution in the aquifer;
  2. ag has caused 92% of the pollution in the aquifer, with Canada contributing to the problem in a "band" along the border, but south of that, it is "on us;"
  3. the most appropriate solution would be to a) stop polluting the aquifer and get the Canadians to do the same, and b) develop treatment systems adequate to address the pollution;
  4. the cheapest, most expedient way to address ag's immediate need for water is for them to gain rights to somebody else's water, with the middle fork of the Nooksack being the most obvious place because Bellingham, in particular, has a large quantity of rights not currently being used (and not subject to "use it or lose it");
  5. the feds are in the process of quantifying tribal rights to minimum instream flow and once they do, all those with rights junior to the tribes' (which is everyone including the municipalities) will have to negotiate reallocation;
  6. no existing residence in the state has ever lost the ability to continue to draw water for its existing residential needs; and
  7. ag wants their water needs addressed now and not in 20 years.

Today's forum benefitted from what seemed to be quite a bit of candor on the part of governmental entities, including PUD's acknowledgement that they are not a leading example of transparency. Future forums will be a bit more "partisan" and therefore will require a bit more sifting to find the accurate information, but if taken with a grain of salt, will certainly inform as to positions of interest groups and their perspectives and messaging. The following are tentative forums and participants scheduled:

  • May 17: Diverse Perspectives on Water and Land Use, with reps of dairy ag, land developers, Business Alliance, Rural Water Systems, fishing, PDS, and Futurewise
  • June 7: Water Resource Planning: Past, Present, and Future, with Small Cities Caucus, Water Districts Coalition, County Public Works, Private Well Owners, Citizen's Alliance for Prop. Rights, and Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Ass'n & RE Sources 
  • June 21 or 28: Wrap Up, with Mayor Linville, Water Districts, Non-gov't water systems, tribes, business, environmental community, and ECOL, with Exec. Louws closing the series.

Abe Jacobson  //  Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 3:17 pm

Thank you for an excellent recap of the meeting, which I was not able to attend.

Are you aware of any plausible ideas out there for either (a) new surface storage, or (b) engineered groundwater-recharge fields, in order to store a bit more of the winter-season water surpluses for use during the summer ag season? As long as these could be done in a manner that is benign to salmon, they ought to be on the menu of options.

Abe Jacobson

Wendy Harris  //  Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 3:32 pm

I agree with Terry that the Rome Grange did a great job. My takeaway was that everyone is looking to Bellingham, with its abundant water supply, as the great savior.  Let’s hope that whatever the city tries to do with its water supply will be a little more transparent than last time (the attempt to give water to Lynden and Ferndale to “protect Bellingham’s future interests.”)

My concern was and continues to be that we can not address water resource issues (or any other ecosystem issue) on a project by project basis through public opinion and funding opportunity (i.e., state grants).

We need to start viewing water resources in the context of a watershed ecosystem that contains many ecosystem functions, and address problems on a landscape/watershed scale. This requires that we characterize, inventory and assess each watershed, and its sub-basins, to better understand complicated interconnections and synergies.  This information should be developed without interference from shareholders and politics (which is why the Planning Unit is not the solution, and WRIA 1 has not delivered on this.)

I want to see a comprehensive watershed ecosystem characterization analysis of each WRIA 1 watershed, which identifies the best areas for Ag, for residential development, for natural resource and critical area protection or restoration, based on review of issues like ground water and surface water flows and quantities and sources of contamination. We need to see and understand how all ecosystem functions are related and can not be dealt with individually, in isolation from each other. 

Only then is an issue like water resources ready for the political process.  This will provide the opportunity for us to engage in comprehensive, integrated and sustainable planning.  We will have information to make informed choices and determine appropriate priorities, understanding the opportunity costs of each decision. 

Yes, this is a tall order. It is complicated, difficult and expensive.  I can understand why a practical progressive like Carl would advocate for his water plan, rather than the approach I advocate. But I do not see project by project water resource programs being any more successful than our site specific SEPA and critical area reviews.  Without understanding the whole picture, you can not make long term planning decisions.

There is a partial example of how this kind of research and planning could work in the Birch Bay Watershed Characterization Pilot Study.  This was a great piece of work which the county mangled in implementation, a risk that always exists when engaging in complicated comprehensive planning efforts.  And we would need something even greater in scope than what was created in the pilot project.  But what other choice do we have if we really want to be successful?

Terry Wechsler  //  Sun, Apr 20, 2014, 7:44 am

I believe it was Doug Allen, Manager of the Bellingham Office of the Department of Ecology, who raised the issue after Marty Maberry, for ag, mentioned their need for water in the summer. It was merely in passing, and when Marty did not seem receptive, it was immediately dismissed because of cost. That was consistent with the general theme whenever solutions were mentioned, with PUD (Steve Jilk, manager) and Maberry emphasizing solutions that are cheap and “easy.” Of course, we all know nothing about this is easy, but there you have it.

Terry Wechsler  //  Sun, Apr 20, 2014, 8:04 am

Sorry, Abe, I didn’t actually answer your question. No, I’m not aware of any plausible methods of storage, but Carl or Doug may be. Unfortunately, judging by the lists of participants, I don’t believe future forums will yield unbiased information about that.

Terry Wechsler  //  Sun, Apr 20, 2014, 11:30 am

Carl Weimer’s online survey, intended to inform the County Council’s Water Action Plan, is still active. The link to it is + Link

Jean Melious  //  Sun, Apr 20, 2014, 3:40 pm

I thought that the takeaway was that all we need to do is find a previously-unknown deep aquifer.  Marty Maberry made a startling announcement about the discovery of a deep aquifer in the Seattle area that’s “bigger than the Amazon and the Columbia Rivers combined”— a vast source of clean water that isn’t in hydraulic continuity with anything.  I don’t know where this discovery was announced—not anywhere that’s yet available through the basic Google search method—but the effect was like pennies from heaven.  Many people in the crowd thought that the new aquifer was here in Whatcom County, judging by subsequent questions, and many will now be convinced that all we have to do is search and we’ll find one of our own.

It doesn’t really matter how often the agency people say “There’s no silver bullet” when a silver bullet has been waved in front of us.  I wish that the technical folks on the panel had addressed this.

Jean Melious  //  Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 8:33 am

Ah ha!  Someone who is a better Googler than I found this: 
+ Link

It describes an enormous underwater canyon—that is, SEA WATER that “flows up from the depths of the Pacific,” not a giant, unknown fresh water aquifer. And researchers knew that this underwater canyon exists. They didn’t know the volume of SEA WATER (with low oxygen and high acid levels) that comes up through the canyon.  “That’s why it’s so salty in Puget Sound,” according to a UW oceanographer who co-authored a report on this canyon.  + Link

The problem is that, once people hear that there may be giant rivers of fresh water that we don’t know about it, it’s really hard to put the genie back into the bottle.  There will now be a sizable population of folks clamoring for money to be spent on finding secret underground rivers, rather than doing the more mundane work of figuring out how to do a better job with what we have. 

Here’s what the first link says:
“University of Washington researchers said they are astounded by the volume of deep SEA WATER that is flowing through an underwater canyon at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They say it’s enough to fill Century Link Field every second.  Twenty to 30 times more water comes up through that canyon than all of the rivers and streams that feed Puget Sound combined. 

Scientists at the UW School of Applied Sciences said today that results from a machine they lowered into the canyon on a research mission last year, measured those massive flows. They describe it as an underwater river as big as the Columbia and Amazon combined that flows uphill from the depths of the Pacific and into the Strait.

Their studies also identified the flow triggers giant underwater waves, as big as skyscrapers that roll through the Strait churning and mixing up nutrients that help feed the Puget Sound’s unusually large shellfish populations.

It also brings some unwelcome elements like low oxygen and high acid levels that are blamed for some fish die offs. But it is a naturally occurring event that has shaped Puget Sound and now that scientists understand it better, they can better understand how it affects the underwater world.”

Abe Jacobson  //  Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 10:07 am

Whoa! In asking about plausible schemes for storing excess winter precipitation in either recharging groundwater or filling reservoirs, I did not imagine that the conversation would go all Roswell Space Aliens on me!

If indeed Marty Maberry believes there is a deep aquifer in the Seattle area that’s “bigger than the Amazon and the Columbia Rivers combined”, then the loss of scientific literacy in America is even worse than I had feared! Fox News 24/7 has turned brains into guacamole.

I do hope, notwithstanding such risible rumors as those quoted above, that the technical feasibility, estimated cost, and means of paying that cost will be explored for water-storage proposals that are based on scientific literacy. And no, a CNN-style “black hole” will not cut the mustard.

Abe Jacobson (research scientist @ UW, and veteran curmudgeon)

Terry Wechsler  //  Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 10:50 am

Video of the forum is here: + Link

And thank you, Jean, for that summary of the deep-water-waiting-to-solve-all-our-problems bombshell dropped by Marty Maberry. One clarification: Marty said there’s a deep river under Seattle, deep aquifer under Whatcom County. Or vice versa. It was muddled by the fact that he threw that bomb and then ran for cover, knowing any real discussion by panelists would reveal that as the excuse-for-doing-nothing that it is. The clear implication was, “So what if ag pollutes the aquifer beyond the point that anyone can use it for anything. We’ll just dig deeper to the next reservoir.” Or river.

Abe, you should have been there. It was, indeed, quite Roswellian.

Jean Melious  //  Mon, Apr 21, 2014, 10:58 am

Hi Abe,

I wasn’t responding to your question about water storage, but rather commenting on what seemed to be one of the major takeaways from the forum. Unfortunately. 

Not that you can blame people—it’s only human to hope that we’ll stumble across the gold of El Dorado.  (Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a lottery.)  I just hope that the County has enough technical wherewithal to respond reasonably, rather than politically, to the likely future calls to fund the hunt for an underwater Amazon.

I’m no hydrogeologist, but the literature I’ve read hasn’t seemed to indicate that deep aquifers are likely to be our panacea in Whatcom County.  That’s why I wished that the technical folks on the panel had commented.  Doug Allen did point out that deeper aquifers in north county tend to be saline, so that was helpful.

Terry Wechsler  //  Wed, Jun 25, 2014, 9:07 pm

Video of forum 3 is onlinenow:  + Link

Terry Wechsler  //  Mon, Jun 30, 2014, 8:54 am

Video of the 2nd forum, May 13, is here: + Link

Water, Water Everywhere, but ...

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 1:57 pm  //  Terry Wechsler

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