Congress mulls project to flood Washington farmland

Whatcom County farmer Scott Bedlington sorts through potatoes. The Army of Corps of Engineers and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife propose to inundate a portion of his family's farm to create fish habitat. A corps' study says the loss of farmland would be ‘insignificant.' A description Bedlington calls a ‘low blow.'

Federal lawmakers may authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue a $451.6 million project to convert hundreds of acres of privately owned farmland into Puget Sound fish habitat, unsettling to a farmer who owns property vital to the government’s designs.

“It’s definitely, definitely in the back of my mind, all the time,” said Scott Bedlington, third-generation Whatcom County farmer. “I have to farm. That’s what we live off.”

The corps and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife propose to inundate 2,100 acres in Whatcom, Skagit and Jefferson counties, including by removing dikes protecting farms.

The flooded land would include about 800 acres of Whatcom County farmland and about 250 acres of Skagit County farmland.

The corps and WDFW spent 15 years and $22 million developing the Puget Sound Nearshore Restoration Project.

The corps forwarded the plan to Congress last month. The plan calls for $293.6 million in federal funding and $158 million in state funding over about 10 years.

The U.S. House recently included the project in its version of the Water Resources Development Act, a list of corps’ projects eligible for funding.

The Senate, however, left the project out.

The Washington Farm Bureau hopes House and Senate negotiators will drop the project from the compromise bill.

Farm Bureau government relations director Tom Davis said the agencies didn’t consult with the farmers whose land the project depends upon.

“They are asking Congress to authorize a project that would destroy prime farmland without talking to the landowners,” he said. “It’s disrespectful. It’s just assuming everybody is going to go along with their bright idea.”

Bedlington, who grows seed potatoes, estimates the plan would inundate 700 to 800 acres he owns or rents.

He said he told WDFW officials at a meeting arranged by the Farm Bureau that his farm wasn’t for sale.

“This whole proposal has been developed with zero contact with us,” he said.

WDFW’s manager of the project, Theresa Mitchell, said the department won’t use eminent domain to acquire land.

She said WDFW hasn’t approached landowners because neither Congress nor the state Legislature has supplied money to buy property.

“We haven’t had detailed conversations,” she said. “We’ll work with willing landowners, and if landowners aren’t willing to sell, the project will need to be redesigned or abandoned.”

Farm groups make a broader point that the plan, drawn up without the involvement of farmers, shows that the agencies are indifferent to preserving farmland and maintaining a vibrant agricultural economy.

“Project proponents have demonstrated they are out of touch with the reality of our threatened farmland and certainly out of touch with the cost of purchasing high-value land,” Whatcom Family Farmers Executive Director Fred Likkel said.

A corps’ study called the loss of prime farmland in Whatcom County “insignificant.”

“It’s a low blow to us,” Bedlington said. “This is our best ground. It’s not physically possible to replace this land.

“I made the investment here because the dikes are good.”

Even if Congress doesn’t authorize the project this year, WDFW will continue working on it, hoping federal lawmakers eventually get behind it, Mitchell said.

WDFW has requested that $6.9 million be included in the next two-year state capital budget, which will take effect July 1.

The funding would be a prelude to much larger budget requests in future two-year budget cycles.

Davis said the Farm Bureau will oppose the state appropriation.

According to the corps’ report to Congress, the plan was developed by federal, state and local agencies, and numerous tribes. The project is environmentally justified and “socially acceptable,” according to the corps.

The plan enjoys support from a majority of Western Washington’s congressional delegation. House Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen, Jim McDermott, Denny Heck, Adam Smith and Derek Kilmer wrote the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee asking him to include the project in the water resources bill.

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