Untangling Nooksack River Water Rights

Lorraine Loomis USEPA Photo by Eric Vance. Public domain image

by Lorraine Loomis

The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe are looking forward to the start of the process to untangle water rights and protect threatened salmon in the Nooksack River basin by finding out just how much water there is and who is using it.

That’s the aim of a legally binding adjudication recently funded by the state Legislature that could bring an end to decades of lawsuits over water rights in the basin. The goal is to ensure adequate water supplies for fish, farms and people. It’s estimated that the adjudication will take 10-20 years to complete.

“This is a good step and is the only legal path we have in Washington to make sure there’s enough water in the Nooksack River for salmon, farming, and people,” says Ross Cline, Nooksack Tribe chairman.

Water is a public resource and the right to use it is on a first-come, first-served basis, but there has never been a ruling that required an inventory of water in the basin or a look at who is using how much. It is clear that the Lummi and Nooksack tribes hold senior water rights as well as treaty rights to harvest salmon that depend on good habitat.

The two tribes have been working for decades with the state and others to restore degraded habitat in the watershed that is the main cause for the salmon decline. Those efforts have been stymied by over-allocation that creates poor water quality and low streamflows. To recover salmon, the water supply must be protected.

“The residents of Whatcom County are our neighbors. With adjudication, we can look to a future where all our grandchildren are able to harvest salmon from our waters and still make a living on the land,” says Lawrence Solomon, Lummi Nation chairman

But Whatcom County agricultural leaders oppose adjudication, saying it will restrict their ability to farm and cost millions in legal fees to protect their water access. They say that voluntary measures will resolve the conflicts, but over the past few decades, those have done little to protect or restore water quality and flows in the Nooksack.

The reality is that adjudication will not take away anyone’s legal right to water. Instead, it will inventory water resources in the basin to determine who has rights to how much water and where, when and how the water can be used. That will provide clarity and certainty to tribes, farmers and everyone else who depends on Nooksack River water.

As an example, the tribes point to a decades-long adjudication in the Yakima River basin that was completed in 2019. The adjudication settled about 4,000 water claims, including rights held by the Yakama Nation on its 1.3-million-acre reservation.

U.S. Department of Agriculture data from before and after the adjudication show that agriculture is thriving in the Yakima basin:

 Irrigated farmland increased from 247,313 acres to 260,023 acres;

 Land being farmed increased from 1,612,399 acres to 1,781,463 acres; and

 Market value of agricultural products increased from $498,067,000 to $1,988,027,000.

Following adjudication, the tribes expect increased cooperation among all parties and greater availability of state and federal grants for water conservation and storage that accompanied completion of the Yakima basin adjudication.

Adjudication makes sense because it is the best way to successfully manage the future of the Nooksack River basin, local economy, salmon recovery and the rush of new residents in the region. The process could also serve as a model for resolving water rights issues in the Skagit and other watersheds.

The two tribes, which have been advocating for water rights adjudication in the basin for decades, provide more information about the process on a website at www.salmonneedwater.org. Additional information is available at nwtt.co/waterrights.  


Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, www.nwifc.org. This column represents the natural resources management interests and concerns of the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington.