Plans to recover now, avoid in the future
“The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth.”
The story of Noah and the flood in Genesis is multifaceted. The story of Whatcom County and its flood can be viewed through just two lenses: flood recovery and how to avoid such disasters going forward.
The one-two punch of floods in November 2021 resulted in the largest natural disaster in Whatcom County history, according to C.J. Seitz, director of the Western Washington University Small Business Development Center and chair of the new Whatcom County Business Recovery Task Force. Its tolls are profound, especially for rural communities: 80% of businesses reporting damage are in the county’s small cities and unincorporated areas. Reports show Sumas suffered the most losses in number of businesses affected and amount of damage. More than half of all reported structural damage occurred in Sumas, followed by Bellingham, Lynden and Everson. (Most businesses within Whatcom County are in Bellingham and Ferndale.) Many businesses in Sumas reported 4 to 5 feet of standing water within their structures; affected Bellingham businesses reported lower levels of flooding.
It’s expected that reports of damage will rise over the coming months as structural damage continues to be identified, mold growth increases, and impacts are compounded. In February 2022, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office estimated flood damage at $120 million.
In January, the federal government declared Whatcom County, along with other parts of Washington, a major disaster area. The declaration means assistance is available to affected individuals, families and businesses via the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration. Information is on the WWU Small Business Development Center website. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service offers postponed payment; the United States Department of Agriculture offers assistance for livestock, bees, farm-raised fish, crops, and timber; the federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance program provides benefits; and a federal helpline is available for emotional counseling.
Flood recovery is a cross-sector effort, Seitz said. Local economic development organizations, including the Port of Bellingham, the WWU Small Business Development Center and others, are working with local governments, the Washington State Department of Commerce and the state’s Emergency Management Division. The WWU Small Business Development Center is serving as an information and resource point for affected businesses.
“I’m proud to be part of this community that cares so deeply for our neighbors,” Seitz said. “There’s been beauty among the hardships. Two that stand out are the efforts of Whatcom Strong to provide immediate relief to flood survivors, and the financial generosity of our community, demonstrated by the resiliency fund at the Whatcom Community Foundation and several GoFundMe campaigns.”
WhatcomStrong.com is a place to make donations, access donations, volunteer to help, and find information on housing, contractors and local disaster recovery centers.
State Rep. Alicia Rule, from the 42nd District, was working on a bill that would provide immediate short-term funding to businesses affected by destructive weather and other natural disasters as they await longer-term financing.
“I introduced this bill after getting off the phone with a Sumas business owner who wanted to reopen but couldn’t because there was still muck and rail ties in their dining room,” Rule said. “It’s been critical to get FEMA funds and support for low-income folks after the flooding, but we need to do more and be better prepared for next time.”
To achieve the federal declaration of disaster, county emergency operations worked to collect and report infrastructure damages; the Whatcom County Business Recovery Task Force was formed; the Port of Bellingham and Whatcom County maintained communication with Gov. Jay Inslee; and damage assessment data was delivered, Seitz said.
And, Seitz said in an email, “We got it!!!”
Avoiding it in the future
Fish, farms and floods: in Whatcom County, these are intertwined, and the solution must be as well.
“Let’s dig into what the real, actionable solutions are and get moving as soon as possible,” said Dillon Honcoop, communications director of Whatcom Family Farmers.
Rich Appel, a dairy farmer and president of Whatcom Family Farmers, said that in the summer of 2021, low in-stream flows and record high water temperatures caused fish die-off. A few months later, massive rain events scoured the river bottom, and “whatever eggs were laid in the river got washed out.”
The entire community needs to desire solutions such as water storage, sediment removal within the river, and diversion dikes to redirect the water away from towns and property if it tops the levees, Appel said.
“It’s not just about farmers,” he said. “We need our state legislators and other elected officials to step up and provide long-term solutions.”
The Washington State Department of Ecology is preparing to sue more than 5,400 water rights holders in Whatcom County, forcing them to defend their water rights in a court case that could be disastrous for agriculture, according to an article published in Capital Press.
Once that adjudication gets going, it’s expected to take more than 15 years. A recent water rights case in the Yakima River Basin took more than 40 years to complete.
Whatcom Family Farmers would prefer to address the issues, Appel said.
“A number of things we’re proposing would be beneficial to fish,” he said. “Adjudication won’t help. It won’t put more water in the river.”
The glaciers that feed the south fork of the Nooksack River have been receding for years, resulting in less and warmer water entering the river, Appel said.
“Adjudication doesn’t address that,” he said.
Instead, Whatcom Family Farmers proposes water storage and moving farmers’ water rights out of surface streams and into ground water farther away from feeder streams.
“There’s plenty of water in Whatcom County,” Appel said. “We have huge reservoirs in the ground. We have no way to manage the water. There’s too much in the winter, and a few months in the summer where we don’t have enough. … Within a month of the rainy season starting, our water tables are full to overflowing.”
The lack of water storage for the Nooksack is unusual, Appel said.
“We have no way to alleviate the flow of the river by storing it, as they do in other rivers up and down the West Coast,” he said.
Farmers are frustrated because instead of spending attention and energy on what can be done, such as habitat restoration or water storage, the community is spending time and money preparing for a court battle. That money could be spent working toward solutions, Appel said.
If adjudication goes forward, each farmer or other claim holder will have to file an individual claim or lose water rights. Some of the land has been divided, resulting in even more claim holders.
“Every water right will have to be defended in court,” Appel said. “If you choose not to, you lose your water rights on that property. People look at the cost of defending that water right: It could be thousands for each water right. They may choose to forego their right. It’s extremely expensive.
“Some crops are very sensitive to water: raspberries, blueberries, seed potatoes. You’re not going to grow those crops in the county without secure water. You can’t expect businesses to invest in infrastructure when everything’s up in the air, as it is now.”
Farmers who can’t farm will be forced to look at other options for their land, such as development, which would be worse for flood control and fish recovery, Appel said. Farmers are ready to be part of the solution, but they can’t if their land is converted to development due to a lack of secure water.
The November 2021 floods in Whatcom County highlighted the need for all corners of the community to work together on water management, Appel said.
The flood in Genesis 9:13 ends on an upbeat note with the words, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds.”
Will the flood and water issues in Whatcom County ever see a similar upbeat ending? ■