LYNDEN, Wash. — Farmers in the northwest corner of Washington often tap the groundwater to irrigate their berry and potato crops during the dry season. But when that irrigation season ended last summer, they did something that’s never been done before in the state.
They used the water to “irrigate” the fish in a nearby creek.
Although Whatcom County receives about 50 inches of rain a year, summers are usually dry. By fall, streams and rivers, including Bertrand Creek, are often below the minimum flows for fish that were set by the Washington Department of Ecology.
The Washington Supreme Court has been extremely protective of these minimum flows. For example, earlier this year in the Hirst decision, justices even stopped the drilling of any household well that might impair a nearby stream’s minimum flow.
Meanwhile, Native American tribal treaty rights continue to be litigated in federal court. A case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, ostensibly over how fast Washington state will replace fish-blocking culverts under roads, will test how far states must go to protect fish.
Since stream flows for the benefit of fish are the issue, farmers in the area looked to pumping groundwater into Bertrand Creek as an attempt to demonstrate on a modest scale something helpful and practical.
“A number of us understand this is not an issue we can hide from,” said Whatcom County raspberry grower Marty Maberry. “I see this potentially as the biggest issue agriculture has to fix.”
The idea was simple: Take water from the aquifer at the end of irrigation season and pump it several hundred feet to Bertrand Creek to help fish survive low stream flows in late summer and early fall. The groundwater would eventually have percolated into the stream, but by then winter rain would have increased stream flows anyway.
It made sense to the farmers to reallocate the water this way. But it wasn’t easy.
“We ran into roadblocks every step of the way,” Maberry said. “It took a long time to do something that should have been done in five minutes.”
Washington produces more red raspberries for processing than any other state. Most of those berries are grown around Lynden. Bertrand Creek, a rain-fed stream whose source is in Canada and flows into the Nooksack River, has provided irrigation water to area farmers.
The creek also provides important habitat for many species of fish, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, including chinook salmon and steelhead trout, which are on the federal endangered species list.
Three decades ago, over farmers’ opposition, Ecology officials set minimum flows for the Nooksack and its tributaries, including Bertrand Creek. The Hirst decision was based on protecting those flows in the Nooksack Basin.
Even before then, farmers along the creek had been transferring their water rights so they could obtain water from the aquifer instead of from the stream.
“It wasn’t sustainable to continue pumping out of the creek,” said potato seed farmer Greg Ebe.
Last fall’s pumping of groundwater into the creek was the next step in increasing its flows.
The Bertrand Watershed Improvement District, an irrigation district, obtained a permit from Ecology to temporarily transfer groundwater directly to the creek. Ecology also provided $65,000 for the project.
The Lummi tribe objected to the water-rights transfer, stating in a letter to Ecology that all withdrawals from the watershed could hurt the tribe’s rights. The Nooksack tribe didn’t comment on the application. Neither tribe responded to requests for comments for this article.
Ecology’s Bellingam-based watermaster, Kasey Cykler, said the agency made sure the watershed improvement district informed the tribes, Whatcom County and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife about its plan.
“Ecology’s goal was to ensure widespread support of the (watershed improvement district’s) project, which we believe they received from the tribes, WDFW and the county,” she said in an email.
Maberry said farmers are mindful of the tribe’s treaty rights. “It’s something we need to take seriously, and we do take their claims seriously,” he said.
The project was also complicated by the state Supreme Court’s so-called Foster decision, which was handed down Oct. 8, 2015. The 6-3 ruling struck down a plan to give the city of Yelm in Thurston County more water, without hurting fish.
Ecology and tribes agreed that the plan, which took 20 years to write and included retiring water rights and improving habitat, would actually benefit fish. The court, however, said no mitigation plan could justify lowering streams and rivers below state-set minimums, even for a month or two a year.
The minimum stream flows, according to the court, are water rights and protected by the principle “first in time, first in right.”
The decision can be seen as an affirmation of Western water law and protective of senior water rights, including agricultural water rights.
The ruling, however, limits ways that water can be redistributed, even in cases where there’s widespread support, including from senior water-right holders.
“You lose on all sides when you can’t do water-right transfers,” Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said. “It gets in the way of a lot of market solutions.”
The Foster decision threatened the Bertrand Creek plan because the timing of the creek’s flows would be changed.
“The Foster decision makes projects like these much more difficult for Ecology to approve,” Cykler said.
Maberry said the decision could keep farmers from doing more for streams.
“Foster is a bad legal decision, and it hinders the ability to do good things,” he said.
Ecology decided the Bertrand Creek project was OK. The wells are not far from the creek, so the timing of flows may not be changed too much, though Ecology will be watching, Cykler said.
As the irrigation season wound down, water from three wells on Maberry’s farm was pumped into the creek.
There was a question about whether the water would actually increase the creek flow, or just soak into the surrounding ground.
The experiment began Sept. 13. Shortly after noon, 1.1 cubic feet per second began flowing from the wells into the creek.
Two miles downstream, the creek was running at 7.2 cfs, according to Ecology’s gauge. By the next day, the creek was at 8.2 cfs. Lynden received no rain during that time, according to Washington State University weather records.
The creek was still short of the 13 cfs it needed to meet the minimum-flow standards, but the project worked as intended.
“I would say we made a significant impact,” said Chuck Lindsay, the watershed improvement district’s consulting hydrogeologist. “One of the reasons I liked this project so much is that we were actually doing something.”
The plan was to pump groundwater into the creek until Nov. 15. But a month after the experiment began, an Oct. 18 storm dumped almost 2 inches of rain on the area. By the next day, the creek was running at 437 cfs.
The experiment in putting water into the creek ended early because there was too much water in the creek.
Maberry said the test was just a start, a pilot project, and that he hopes Ecology will allow more projects like it.
“The farmers are the only ones actually doing anything,” he said.