Despite one of driest summers on record, Bertrand Creek flows above natural conditions for the first time in decades The northern Whatcom County fish-bearing stream flow was increased dramatically through conservation, water rights conversions and direct groundwater augmentation (LYNDEN, WA) Bertrand Creek in northern Whatcom County late-summer flows are at rates the salmon-bearing stream hasn’t seen in many years. During the driest months of the summer water in the stream naturally decreased, but those low flows were heightened by legal withdrawals from the stream by farmers for irrigation.
This September, for the first time in decades, Bertrand flowed with clean, cold water at a rate of six to seven (cfs) cubic feet per second. That translates to more than 3000 gallons per minute or almost four and a half million gallons per 24 hour day. An Olympic-sized swimming pool contains 660,000 gallons, to put that flow into perspective. Just a few summers ago, in 2003, the August flow in the stream was 1.58 cfs, or about 720 gallons per minute and that was during a time of higher rainfall.
What caused this minor miracle of habitat restoration? To understand that, a bit of history is needed. Bertrand is a relatively small stream that originates in small streams in Canada. North of the border it flows through farm country marked with growing urbanization. It crosses the border northeast of Lynden. Stream flows were further compromised by a dam placed across the stream just north of the border, completely stopping any flow from Canada. From the border it flows by some dairy but mostly raspberry and blueberry farms. For many years, farmers near the stream had legal rights to withdraw irrigation water directly from the stream. Irrigation was needed at the driest times of the summer, in July and August, at the same time that the natural flows were lowest. The result was a decline in flow to the point of harming fish.
In 2004, farmers recognized the problem and formed the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District. This was the first of now six farmer-organized and run government entities designed to address water issues on a drainage by drainage basis. Many farmers were already working hard at conserving water. Marty Maberry, a leading berry farmer and co-owner of Maberry Packing, stated that the micro-irrigation of berries now used by almost all berry farmers reduced the withdrawals for irrigation on a per acre basis in half – from about 900 gallons per minute to about 400 gallons per minute. But as berry acreage increased, this alone did not solve the problem of low flows.
From 2010 to 2016 a number of the farmers who had surface water rights to withdraw directly from the stream began to apply for and were granted the right to withdraw groundwater instead of stream water. Their irrigation water now came from wells some distance from the creek. This made a massive difference in stream flows so that the August flow in 2015 was up to six cubic feet per second or 2700 gallons per minute. At the same time they were doing this, farmers were working on an innovative idea to increase flow even more: augmentation. This involved pumping water from a well located away from the stream and accelerating the natural seepage from groundwater. While farmers bore much of the cost of the augmentation project, the Department of Ecology also provided a grant.
After over two years of paperwork, farmers were finally granted a groundwater permit for the project. Pumping began on September 12 and will continue until fall rains take over filling the stream. The flow gauge located on Rathbone Road near where the Bertrand empties into the Nooksack river confirmed that the one cfs flow being pumped well upstream, meant that the flow was maintained all the way to the river.
“Farmers understand this is something we need to do,” said Maberry. “Habitat is only one factor affecting fish, but it is one that as farmers we can address. This shows we understand the need for stream flow, for habitat and we respect and support tribal treaty rights.”
But, he also pointed out that court cases limiting innovative water management are a real hindrance to this kind of project. “The Foster decision of the Washington Supreme Court and Ecology’s position on it of a one to one equivalence of groundwater and surface water for instream flows is not science-based and prevents an awful lot of good work being done,” Maberry said, “including further surface to groundwater rights conversions.”
Maberry pointed out that original versions of the “Hirst Fix” bill stalled in the state legislature included a Foster fix. “Fixing Hirst and Foster is very high on the list of priorities for our state and those Democratic leaders opposing the proposed solutions need to understand the harm being done. Foster in particular is hindering the environmental mitigation work we are trying to do. Since this involves fish habitat and tribal treaty rights, we would expect our friends and neighbors in the tribes to be fully supportive as well.”
According to Maberry, the Bertrand augmentation project is just a start. “We see many opportunities to improve habitat with this kind of farmer-led approach,” he said. “But we also look for more support from our government leaders including tribal leaders for help in securing the long delayed water rights that will allow us to continue to farm.”
Stream Flow Augmentation Presentation to Baker to Bay Symposium