Sunday, May 4, 2014

Watershed Improvement Districts

Watershed Improvement Districts –
A good way to help address some county water issues, or just empowering another special interest group to gum up the works?

On Tuesday the County Council is being asked to consider a resolution from the newly formed Ag District Coalition to support their efforts to create up to five additional Watershed Improvement Districts (WIDS), perhaps as early as this fall. You can read the resolution here. The stated purpose of these proposed Watershed Improvement Districts is to “provide a voice with legal standing to agricultural interests in the county on water issues for the purpose of preserving viable agriculture in Whatcom County.”  

While preserving farmland seems to be supported by nearly everyone, some have questioned the underlying motives of those that are proposing these WIDs. Are they really trying to just provide some leadership to break the logjam on a variety of water issues, or are they just trying to create new jurisdictions with legal authority to push for what is most advantageous for current agriculture stakeholders? Will this help move us all toward solutions, or just slow things down even further?

I attended a meeting of the Ag District Coalition in Lynden in January where they talked about this idea, and I was impressed with the variety of groups they invited, their explanation of the bind Ag is in in regards to legal water rights, and the initiative they are showing to try to find some cooperative solutions.

All that being said, I think it is always important for council members to try to consider possible unintended consequences of our actions, especially when we are being asked to support an idea with potential broad policy implications. The phrase in the resolution that gave me pause was “provide a voice with LEGAL standing.” So, if these WIDS are formed what actual legal standing would they have, and what powers would be created that don’t currently exist? To understand that you have to understand the underlying state law that allows the creation of these WIDS, which will actually be Irrigation Districts created under RCW 87.

I by no means claim to understand completely RCW 87, but reading through it did make clear that such irrigation districts potentially have way more power than has been explained in conjunction with the formation of these WIDS. For example these potential WIDS (irrigation districts) appear to have the power to:

  Levy taxes and fees, and associated bonding authority
  Use eminent domain to take private property for their purposes
  Operate water storage and transmission systems for irrigation, domestic use, and fire flows.
  Operate sewer and drainage systems
  Operate electrical generating and transmission systems
  Provide street lighting
  Watershed management planning
  Implement water conservation efforts, and make available rights to conserved water

These powers raise some policy questions. For instance:
-  Under a WID scenario the Ag Caucus to the WRIA 1 Planning Unit could be converted from a non-governmental caucus to a governmental caucus which could give them a veto power over new proposed in-streams flows that come before the Planning Unit for a vote.

-  If these WIDs have the ability to operate water, sewer and electrical transmission systems in their boundaries how do these powers conflict with other entities that already provide these services, or potentially encourage growth in rural areas instead of preserving Ag land?

At this point none of policy questions I can dream up seem to rise to the level that would make me question the benefits to be had by empowering more local people to work on these water issues. We already have two WIDs, the Bertrand Watershed WID and the North Lynden WID. Both of these WIDs have developed watershed reports with action items that show they are actively looking for a variety of solutions with a variety of partners. All that seems appropriate.

At this point I see no real reason to do anything but support this resolution. If I am missing something please let me know. The reality is, if I am reading the state law that allows for these WIDs (Irrigation Districts) correctly, the County Council really has no power to stop the creation of these WIDs. While they have to come through the County Council for the elections to create the WIDS, we cannot withhold those elections if they provide the required petitions. If the property owners (not residents) in these proposed districts then approve of the creation of the districts, and elect a board of directors, the districts are created – with or without County Council or anyone else’s approval. That’s called direct democracy, as created by the state legislature.

What do you think?