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Washington State News

Washington Farmers Blame Canada for Contaminated Water

TJ Martinell | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – A northern Washington farmer advocacy group is calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to act swiftly to address poor water quality in their region due to what they claim is contamination flowing from rivers originating in Canada.

In their June 6 letter to Inslee, Whatcom Family Farmers Executive Director Fred Likkel and Northern Lynden Water Improvement District President Larry Stap described the Nooksack River Basin as contaminated with “extremely high levels of bacteria” coming from the other side of the Canadian border.

“Given the current issues surrounding international flooding, as well as issues surrounding water rights and an impending adjudication of water rights in Whatcom County, immediate action is imperative on this subject,” the letter states.

Among the entities that regularly conduct water quality tests in the watershed is Whatcom County. According to its May 2023 test, numerous tributaries for the basin and several of the 20 sample sites failed the health benchmark for acceptable levels of fecal coliform.

“Our experience here in Whatcom County has shown that water contamination this severe only comes from direct discharges to waterways,” the June 6 letter states. “Efforts to step up monitoring and enforcement in Canada would most likely have an immediate impact.”

The letter also noted that the Lummi Nation located north of Bellingham voluntarily closed more than 300 acres of Portage Bay to shellfish harvesting due to the poor water quality. Although the nation has since reopened, the letter warns that “the continued high level of Canadian contamination poses an ongoing threat to these shellfish beds and consequently to the health of those who may consume shellfish from this important and traditional harvest area.”

Water quality has been an ongoing problem for the watershed. The British Columbia – Washington Nooksack River Transboundary Technical Collaboration Group (TCG) was formed in 2018 to find ways to reduce the amount of fecal bacteria. After studying the issue for several years, it “did not achieve the project’s short-term border benchmark at all border locations. The Nooksack River continues to deposit fecal bacteria into Portage Bay where portions of the Lummi Nation’s Shellfish Growing Area fail to meet standards to allow year-round shellfish harvesting.”

The group’s report recommended “an ongoing integrated approach to bring watershed stakeholders together. This could be achieved by creating a B.C. WA Nooksack River Transboundary Community of Practice involving partners and stakeholders across agencies and local stakeholders. Partnership for Water Sustainability or the Canada Water Agency are potential leads for coordinating B.C.s participation in this project platform.”

Although the TCG is supposed to be monitoring water quality on the Canadian side of the border, the June 6 letter claimed that Canadian authorities has eliminated its staff. “This action is impeding progress on this crucial issue.”

In an email to The Center Square, Inslee’s Communication Manager Mike Faulk wrote that their policy staff plan to schedule a meeting with the letter’s authors to discuss the issue.

“We share the concerns about high levels of fecal bacteria in the Nooksack River Basin and how that’s affecting water quality, shellfish, and the broader river ecosystem,” he wrote. “The Whatcom Clean Water Program partners have been working hard with landowners to control fecal bacteria pollution sources in Whatcom County for many years.”

He added: “Our Department of Ecology, working with Whatcom Clean Water Program partners, is currently engaged with the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy on how to continue partnership on this important issue.”