The mayors of Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, Sumas, and Blaine allege that a water management “crisis” for the Nooksack River has gone “virtually unnoticed,” and their constituents have paid the price.
“We urge you to shift your focus to the crisis at hand and help those of us who are committed to protecting the environment, fish, farms and the families who depend on us,” they write.
The Feb. 7 letter calls on the directors of the departments of ecology, natural resources, fish and wildlife, and agriculture to prioritize their concerns and meet with them.
The mayors said extreme weather brought “triple devastation” to their communities last year.
Record-breaking heat in the summer damaged crops and strained dairy cattle, and in September, low water flow levels contributed to the deaths of more than 2,500 salmon in the South Fork and Nooksack rivers alone, they wrote.
Between Nov. 14 and 15, catastrophic floods struck the region as the Nooksack River overflowed, causing significant damage to homes and infrastructure in the U.S. cities, all found south of Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.
In addition to property damage, the mayors said one person and more than 50 animals died. Livestock stood in the floodwaters for days without rest, they added, and salmon flushed from streams were left to die in farm fields.
“These losses were magnified significantly for our Canadian friends north of us,” the mayors wrote.
“The devastation was much worse for them, and sadly it was water from our state that wreaked havoc on their farms, communities, animals and lives.”
Instead of focusing on the “entirely predictable” challenges of too much water in the Nooksack at one time of year, and too little at other times, the mayors allege the Washington state departments chose to prioritize other initiatives that won’t help them protect salmon, farms and communities.
In written responses to Global News, the departments of ecology, natural resources, fish and wildlife, and agriculture confirmed they received the mayors’ letter. Some have already reached out to discuss their concerns.
Andrew Wineke, deputy director for the Washington State Department of Ecology, said the department remains “committed to working with all of the communities in the Nooksack River basin on water supply issues, and finding solutions with our partners to improve flood plain management in the area.”
The Department of Natural Resources has limited regulatory authority over the issue, but spokesperson Joe Smillie said its staff will use “the programs we do have to ensure Washington’s communities can stay vibrant and resilient as climate change affects the landscape we all depend on.”
Hector Castro, communications director for the Department of Agriculture, said the issues raised in the letter “are of great interest” to the department, and it will collaborate with partner agencies on solutions.
Chase Gunnell, communications manager for the Puget Sound region of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it’s critical that “durable solutions” to reduce flood impacts are advanced.
“We’re doubtful that dredging the Nooksack River is a feasible flood control tactic, or that it could be done without harming protected salmon and steelhead,” he wrote.
“Collaborative initiatives around dike setbacks and restoring wetlands, side channels, and other elements of natural watershed resilience may offer more effective strategies to reduce flooding and protect residents while also restoring habitat for fish.”
Their comments come as some Whatcom County officials mull a plan to buy out homes in areas of the state at risk of flooding from the Nooksack River, and create a floodplain that would help direct the water to Abbotsford, B.C., which lies at a lower elevation.
The proposed ‘Hazard Mitigation Project for 2021 Flooding’ was presented to the county’s flood control zone advisory committee last month, and has not yet been approved.
In emailed comments, Gunnell acknowledged the “complex” issue of the low-elevation pathway that historically brings flood waters north to Canada.
“There may be opportunity for significant infrastructure improvements to mitigate this transboundary risk while restoring salmon habitat, such as broadening the setback at the Everson Road Bridge and allowing more natural braiding of the Nooksack in this constricted area where the river has been known to jump the bank,” he said.
November’s floods destroyed homes and critical infrastructure in southern B.C., displaced thousands of people, and resulted in the deaths of five people. Tens of thousands of farm animals were killed, and to date, many residents are struggling to recoup their losses and rebuild their lives.