Washington State farmers want B.C. to act on cross-border water concerns

Lower water levels and contamination problems seen in Langley and Abbotsford streams that feed Whatcom County

Manure runoff contaminating a waterway in Whatcom County.

Some Washington State farmers say the quality of the water coming across the border from Langley and Abbotsford has worsened over the past two years, due to a combination of unusually low water levels and fecal contamination.

Farmer Scott Bedlington, chair of the Whatcom County Ag Water Board, said the cross-border flow of water into Washington State from streams in Langley and Abbotsford has been the lowest his family has seen in 70 years.

That was the case both last year when weather conditions were unusually hot and this year when conditions were closer to normal.

“There’s something happening up there (in B.C.),” Bedlington told The Times.

“All of a sudden, there’s no water coming down the streams.”

The Ag Water Board is a non-profit agency that represents six Watershed Improvement Districts (WIPs) within Whatcom County that “participate in cooperative watershed management actions … for purposes of water supply, water quality, water resource, and habitat protection and management,” according to the board website.

Last month, the board sent a letter, signed by Bedlington, to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, urging him to contact the B.C. government about the water level drop.

A copy was provided to The Times.

The letter complained that the board has been working to improve water quality, including habitat restoration, reducing water pumping from streams and augmenting stream flows at low-flow periods, but those efforts have been “severely compromised by what goes on just north of the border.”

“In the past weeks we have seen several of our trans-boundary streams dried up,” the letter says.

“It is disheartening to see fish dying in heated pools when the water that sustains them is no longer flowing south across the border. It also makes all our efforts to increase stream flows feel inconsequential.”

The letter suggests the water is being dammed on the BC side by farmers illicitly diverting waterways to irrigate their crops.

The letter mentions two specific streams that feed water across the border, Perry Homestead Brook near the Aldergrove border crossing, and Pepin Creek, near the Abbotsford airport.

It does not talk about the probBedlingtonlem of fecal contamination, but Bedlington (pictured) said that is also a perennial concern for Washington farmers.

Right now, he said, because of the current drop in water levels, contamination isn’t really a problem, but he expects it will become one again when the rain picks up in about five weeks and starts washing manure into waterways.

Bedlington stressed the issue of fecal contamination exists on both sides of the border.

“It’s not a one-sided deal,” Bedlington said, adding a solution must involve both B.C. and  and Washington authorities.

Development of the Langley and Abbotsford areas may be contributing to the water contamination problem, said Reg Ens, the executive director of the B.C. Agriculture Council (BCAC), which represents over 14,000 B.C. farmers and ranchers and close to 30 farm sector associations.

Ens said singling out the “very intensive” agriculture sector as a contributor to water contamination doesn’t allow for the impact of more septic systems and runoff from residential areas that can’t soak up as much water.

He said BCAC members generally favour steps to improve water quality protection.

“Fundamentally, what our members are saying is, we don’t want to pollute,” Ens said.

Farms on both the Washington State and the B.C. side have been fined under existing regulations for contaminating fish-bearing streams.

A review of existing farm waste control regulations in B.C. is currently underway involving an agriculture industry working group consisting of industry sector representatives, the BC Agriculture Council and the Ministry of Agriculture.

The review includes an examination of the rules that govern using, storing and managing agricultural wastes and by-products, such as manure and composted materials.

A draft version of the revised regulations is expected by the end of this year.