Saturday, August 2, 2014

Caution - Only For Those Who Can Think Beyond Soundbites

Hi all,

Yesterday the County Council received a long memo from local attorney Robert Carmichael on behalf of the Birch Bay Water & Sewer District in response to the Council's request for comments on our Water Action Plan. I have posted the entire memo here for the real water wonks among you who want to try to wade through it (13 pages). While the letter states up front it is only regarding water quantity and availability issues, it also takes some interesting forays into salmon, in-stream flows, the lack of connection between the county's land use planning and water issues, and current inadequacies in the County's Comprehensive Plan. It is a good read for those who want to better understand the complexity of these issues and how they are all so clearly intertwined. 

I agree completely with the two overarching statements in the memo for how the County should proceed with water quantity issues. Here is what Mr. Carmichael wrote:

"First, determining water availability must begin with a vision for achieving knowledge based allocations of water resources which meet the present and future needs of agriculture, industry, commerce, domestic uses, recreation, and fish and wildlife. To date, little progress has been made. There are many reasons for this failure, but one basic reason is that we lack an effective, well-focused process for determining minimum instream flows necessary to protect fish and wildlife."
"Second, there must be a concerted effort to integrate land use planning with water resource planning. While there presently exists a clear public process for land use planning, the same cannot be said for water resource planning. At present, the process of resolving water availability issues is unduly fragmented and disorganized, and, unfortunately, is becoming more so."

I also completely agree with many of the major points he makes such as:
  • Focusing only on the human demand side of the water equation will not create a good result. The real water available needs to be quantified too.
  • Setting in-stream flows that protect fish and other wildlife needs to be job one in determining how much water is then left over for human use.  
  • The need for better coordination between land use planning and water planning. Continuing to a grand degree to pretend these two are separate issues is just plain stupid.
  • The County's Comprehensive Plan needs significant work on water resource issues.
There are a few areas in the memo that while I don't disagree with Mr. Carmichael I have some major concerns. For instance Mr. Carmichael points out that the County needs to be the lead entity in these efforts because the County holds no water rights so is the one local government who has no built in conflict of interest. One of his points about this was:
"Parties holding meaningful water rights of their own have a built-in conflict of interest which no amount of good intentions can cure. It is essential to the credibility of the process that leadership come from an entity without direct legal interests of its own to protect."
Yet he then goes on to suggest a greater role for the WRIA 1 Planning Unit in these decisions. By the very make up and voting requirements of the Planning Unit those with these "built-in conflicts of interest" hold veto power over changing minimum in-stream flows that could affect their interests. I was on the Planning Unit for years and believe in the value of having a strong, knowledgeable body to help move these water issues forward, but that body needs to come up with methods to deal with members who may have more of an interest in not moving changes forward to protect the broken status quo. How can we make the progress Mr. Carmichael outlines if some of the Planning Units members are just there to say "No."  Can enough progress be made if all the recommendations coming from such a body are the lowest common denominator?  Luckily we have the tribes forcing some of these groups to pull their heads out of the sand. 

Mr. Carmichael's description of how the Planning Unit ought to operate is certainly a goal I support and think we should strive to attain. Unfortunately, his description would include the Planning Unit members understanding and commenting on the details of highly technical in-stream flow and groundwater models, habitat assessments, etc. Many of the current Planning Unit members do not have the scientific background to be able to do this, and are highly suspicious of those who do. This seems like another real barrier to the Planning Unit moving issues forward if there are members who are unwilling to accept technical findings if they are unable to understand the science that developed them. I will continue to support funding, perhaps at even greater levels, for the Planning Unit because I can't come up with a better way for the community to be involved in finding solutions to these problems. That funding will be jeopardized if the Planning Unit itself can not find a way to deal with technical issues that may be beyond the understanding of a majority of the members. We can't all have degrees in hydrology, biology, law, engineering, etc, so how do we find a way to review and trust technical information so the system does not bog down unnecessarily?

Finally, Mr. Carmichael also describes a whole range of studies and actions that the County as lead agency should be moving on. Most all of his suggestions seem valid and important to me. These suggested actions would cost the County hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when we have no money in reserves to cover these costs, and funding from the state and federal governments is declining. Even the Department of Ecology recently quit attending Planning Unit meetings explaining that they did not have the resources to attend and had higher priorities. So if Mr. Carmichael and other members of the Planning Unit believe we should be providing more support and staffing for the Planning Unit, and for a variety of studies to support dealing with water quantity issues, it would be great if they would also provide support for paying for these things. Is each government caucus like the one Mr Carmichael represents willing to put $100,000 into a pot each year to pay for these ideas? Are they at least willing to pass a resolution in support of the County Council raising taxes slightly for the Flood Fund to pay for this? Asking for things is cheap, paying for them is a little more difficult.

I thank Mr. Carmichael and the Birch Bay Water & Sewer District for their memo which is the most in-depth and thought provoking response I have seen to date from the Council's request for such input. The County Council can certainly not solve all these problems this year as part of our budget process, but hopefully we can set a new course for the County on water issues that will lead to significant improvements in the coming years. Glad so many diverse voices are encouraging us to try!