No Hirst Fix for Skagit. Here's why.
No water for Skagit – what’s behind the water “crisis”
Thanks to a Skagit Valley Herald on Sunday, January 28, the community now understands something about what could be called the “water wars.” The “Hirst Fix” bill recently passed the legislature and restored the opportunity for property owners, including small farmers, to drill wells. Except in Skagit.
In the last session the Hirst Fix did not pass even though there were enough votes to pass it. But Governor Inslee and Speaker Frank Chopp refused to allow the compromise solution to come to the floor for a vote. Why? This is what Capital Press reported at the time:
“That became the thing that blew it up in the House Democratic caucus — consult vs. consent,” said Blake, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “That blew it up, and we didn’t have majority support in the House Democratic caucus.”
“Consent vs. consult” refers to the demand of the tribes that they not only be consulted on who gets water and who doesn’t but have consent. In other words, veto power. The Democratic leaders, apparently concerned about losing the very generous campaign contributions from the tribes, allowed this demand to prevent passage of a reasonable bill and hold up the capital budget.
So, with Democrats now in control of all branches, a Hirst Fix was passed. For the state, what was passed looks mostly positive thanks to some tough negotiating. But for Skagit, there is no relief from the very severe restrictions. Why? The Skagit Valley Herald minces no words:
Legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, are saying tribes in the county, specifically the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, lobbied Democrats on the bill’s negotiating committee to have Skagit County removed from the legislation.
Let’s take a step back. This whole hubbub that has consumed our government for two sessions now, and threatens to seriously deteriorate relations between tribal members and their fellow citizens is about a myth. A false assumption. Is there enough water? Is there water for fish, for farming, for growing communities? In some parts of our state, the drier parts, securing adequate water can be a significant issue that has been worked on for years. But for western Washington, particularly the farming areas of Whatcom and Skagit county, we have more than enough water. The “instream flow” rules established by Ecology in the 1980s were not set by any known science or standard.
Farmers take water for irrigation. In the past most or all of that was taken from streams and rivers. In Whatcom, if all the water for irrigation was taken from the Nooksack river it would equate to about 1% of the total annual flow. In Skagit County, many problems involving water originate from the 2001 in-stream flow rule to leave rural property owners and farmers through the irrigation districts out of the water allocations.
Farmers for years have been working to transfer their legal water rights from the streams to groundwater or wells. Courts and environmental policies have stopped some of this. Ironically, the Foster Supreme Court decision which said in effect any water taken from the ground is the same as taking water from the stream. That stopped efforts in Whatcom of farmers to restore stream flows by more surface rights conversions to groundwater rights, and even stopped for several years the effort of farmers to put groundwater into the Bertrand creek at times of lowest flow to help fish. Fortunately, Ecology officials allowed this work to go on in 2017 and the results were documented by Capital Press.
The Skagit river system is the third largest on the West Coast. As with Whatcom, Skagit also has massive underground aquifers. It’s ironic that in the very real water wars of California, one solution is to control drainage to refill depleted aquifers. In Western Washington our aquifers are not depleted but are fully recharged every year – to overflowing. In 2015, a drought year, farmers reported the rapid rise of well levels after irrigation was completed within days of the return of rains. Flooding is a continual issue in Western Washington. The suggestion that we have a water crisis is nonsense widely reported because of an anti-growth agenda. Futurewise with Eric Hirst have been publishing false claims about a water crisis for years. Everyone should understand, it is not about a shortage of water. Water is power. Leverage over it is sought by anti-growth advocates in concert with some tribal leaders. The fact that water is used as a tool for control was made very clear when, as Representative Blake said, the Hirst Fix was stopped over the issue of tribal “consent.”
As to the claim that the lack of water or habitat is the cause of fish decline, this is not supported by the facts either. Farmers are the real leaders in water conservation, in habitat restoration, and stream restoration. The multiple millions (likely into the billions) spent on habitat has not restored fish. Why? The Seattle Times gives a pretty strong hint in this November 20, 2017 article. It points to recent research that shows chinook salmon are being produced at a rate almost twice that of 1975 – from 225 million to 406 million chinook. Where are they going?
The public may be shocked to learn that the science report shows that marine mammals protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act are primarily responsible for the fact that human harvest of salmon has declined even while almost twice as many salmon are produced than in 1975.
Killer whale numbers on the West Coast more than doubled from 292 in 1975 to 644 individuals. Those whales increased their consumption of chinook salmon from 5400 metric tons to almost 11,000 metric tons in that time period. From the 1.3 adult salmon consumed in 1975, the killer whale consumption increased to 2.6 million adults in 2015.
However, given that over 400 million salmon were produced in 2015, the 5.2 million adults consumed by humans and predators still leaves a lot of fish. Where did they go? Mostly to other predators including harbor seals, California sea lions and Steller sea lions. From a Puget Sound standpoint, the Salish Sea (formerly Northern Puget Sound) sees by far the biggest loss from these predators, particularly harbor seals. Harbor seal predation increased nearly ten times in that 40 years, from 3.5 million to 27.4 million chinook. But by far hardest hit was the Salish Sea area where harbor seals consumed 23.2 million chinook in this small area alone. In other words, 85% of the chinook eaten by harbor seals are Salish Sea stock. In this area alone, harbor seal population grew from 8600 animals to 77,800!
This very important study makes it clear that the Salish Sea is by far the hardest hit from harbor seals. Killer whale numbers have more than doubled from Alaska to northern California since 1975. Our Salish Sea pods are struggling. One reason apparent from the study is that our local whales have no appetite for harbor seals, unlike those in Canada, Alaska and everywhere else. That has allowed the Salish Sea population of harbor seals to skyrocket. These animals have a great appetite for smolts, which is one very clear reason why we don’t have the fish runs all the efforts at restoration should have supported.
The point is, despite what we hear repeated by some tribal officials and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a lack of water and habitat issues in Western Washington are not the driving concerns in the decline of fish. Anti-growth activists, anti-farm activists and some tribal leaders are certainly aware of these facts (if not, they need to open their minds to some science on this). All this shows that the Hirst hub-bub is not about a water crisis, or even a fish crisis – it is the use of water as a tool for gaining political power to pursue specific agendas.
Citizens of Skagit County are understandably upset. The use of water as a tool to control development has caused significant harm to the County but even greater harm to property owners. This even impacts small farmers as purchasing parcels for small farm-to-market farms is also affected. Questions need to raised about how our elected representatives voted on this. We know that some representing Skagit voted against the Hirst Fix because it did not include Skagit. Some may have voted against it because it didn’t go far enough in preventing rural development. Some may have voted for it only because the Swinomish leaders were able to exempt Skagit from the fix. It’s very important for Skagit citizens to know how they voted and their reasons.
There is a great and growing concern we have. As we watch the community’s response to issues such as the effort of the Swinomish to expand their tribal jurisdiction beyond reservation boundaries, and now lobbying hard against access to abundant water, we are concerned about a growing anti-tribe sentiment. It is not healthy in our community and it is not something Skagit Family Farmers wants to contribute to in any way. But, the kind of aggressive legal and political action taken by Swinomish tribal leaders against their fellow citizens will likely lead to a political backlash that could prove very harmful to their long term interests, including funding sources. As it becomes more apparent there are elected representatives who support a group of 500 citizens instead of all citizens, the tribal leadership will find it harder to secure political support. A community and voter backlash is not something we want to see, but we would find it understandable if there is not more effort to work with the community and its interests instead of continuing to take action such as the Skagit exemption so harmful to our community and its citizens.