The Bertrand is a relatively small stream that originates in Canada. 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 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 six farmer-led government entities formed to address water issues. Many farmers were already working hard at conserving water. Marty Maberry, co-owner of Maberry Packing, said the micro-irrigation now used by almost all berry farmers reduced the withdrawals for irrigation by half per acre. But this alone did not solve the problem of low flows.
From 2010 to 2016 a number of the farmers were approved to pull their irrigation water from nearby wells instead of the stream. This made a massive difference in stream flows, but at the same time, farmers were working on an innovative idea to increase flow even more: augmentation. This involved pumping water from a well into the creek at the time of lowest flow.
They applied for the groundwater permit from the Washington Department of Ecology, and after over two years of delays, were finally granted approval. As the water flowed into the stream, a newly-designed structure aerated the water, refreshing it with a higher oxygen content and new life. Measurements confirmed that the flow had increased 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.”
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.”
The farming community is eager to keep the Bertrand stream a healthy place for local salmon and trout to thrive, something that may not have been possible had they not taken action.
Larry Stap is a fourth generation dairy farmer and co-owner of the popular glass bottled dairy product brand, TwinBrook Creamery, with his son-in-law and daughter. Their farm lies adjacent to the stream along with the Fishtrap creek, hence “twin brook.” When Stap saw the dying fish, he and co-owner Mark Tolsma made an immediate decision: divert their much needed irrigation water into the struggling stream. Well water was pumped into the stream and helped provide the time needed to rescue as many of the remaining fish as possible.
It wasn’t the first time Whatcom’s family farmers sacrificed to divert water into streams during the low flow times of late summer. For several years, farmers in the Bertrand Watershed Improvement District worked with state officials to allow them to use well water to pump cold, oxygenated water into the Bertrand creek to support fish habitat. Legal decisions and bureaucratic processes delayed the effort for a couple of years. This action followed the earlier voluntary diversion of water rights. Farmers for years have had the legal right to draw irrigation water directly from the stream, but now understand that during the heat of summer more water is needed in the creek so have been allowed to convert those surface water rights to groundwater rights allowing them to use wells for irrigation. More rights could be converted but unfortunate legal decisions have hindered that process.
These are just two of literally hundreds of examples of what Whatcom Family Farmers are calling REAL: Real Environmental Action and Leadership. The public doesn’t automatically think of farmers as environmental activists, and indeed they aren’t in the sense of protesting, suing and lobbying. But they might instead be called “environmental actionists” because of the proactive and positive actions taken to help protect the environment.
A few more examples:
The strict farming regulations combined with literally hundreds of proactive measures taken by farmers to protect the environment are working. Recent monitoring by the Department of Ecology shows that groundwater quality nearest our dairy farms is actually improving. Nitrate levels are restricted by EPA regulations and nitrate above the EPA limit is very common in most areas where farming has long existed. This is because until about the 1970s no one was aware that the heavy use of fertilizer, either organic as in cow manure or commercial fertilizer, meant that excess nitrogen was leaching into groundwater. We now know that it takes 3o to 50 years of improved farm practices to affect nitrate levels in groundwater and the fact that in Whatcom County we are seeing improvement means that what farmers are doing is positively working.
Farming has always had an impact on the environment and problems continue as we hear more and more about environmental impacts of farming across the nation and world. Whatcom farmers clearly understand that not all problems have been solved and the potential for contamination remains. That’s one reason why farmers have come together in groups such as the six Watershed Improvement Districts and Whatcom Family Farmers. Together farmers can encourage each other, support positive policy actions and improve public understanding of the REAL environmental leadership farmers provide.
Fishtrap Creek comes to us from our northern neighbors in Canada, crossing the border to wind through both farm fields and the city of Lynden. The stream eventually feeds into the Nooksack River, providing habitat to Chinook, coho, and chum salmon, as well as many other species.
For decades farmers have worked with conservation groups, government agencies, volunteers and students to rebuild healthy fish habitat in Fishtrap Creek. They’ve cleaned up invasive plants and planted native trees to provide stable stream banks that filter water coming to the creek, and even more importantly, provided shade to help cool the water to protect the juvenile salmon growing there.
This past year that work continued on a section of the creek that runs through farmland just north of the Lynden city limits. Rader Farms, which grows red raspberries in the field along that section of stream, stepped up to allow conservation workers and volunteers to access the area and contributed the additional land needed to expand the riparian area. The farm also did the hard work of cleaning up the non-native plants that had been choking the stream banks.
The team from NSEA guided the project and provided native trees in pots, bark mulch and workers to lead the student volunteers planting trees. Armed with gloves and rubber boots, students from Lynden Christian High School science classes planted hundreds of the new trees. They used bark mulch and plastic tubes to protect the seedlings as they grow up to shade and protect the creek.
After watching agriculture fail in previous places they had lived, the Belisles were drawn to Whatcom County for its vibrant farming community. Along with their family, they planted their first orchard over 20 years ago. The Belisle’s now grow over 25,000 fruit trees and have opened a cafe and distillery! Bellewood Acres is a haven for locals as well as providing a taste of country life to those looking to escape from town for the afternoon. However, it’s the environmental example they set behind the scenes which makes the biggest impact.
When the drainage district came to Dorie for help concerning the grass filled, mud clogged Four Mile creek, she set to work enlisting her fellow farmers to solve the drainage problem. She soon learned just how much her community valued creating sustainable practices to protect their natural resources. Dorie was joined by a team of farmers who were committed to conserving water quality, for the sake of both fish and farming. Not only were the stagnant streams causing flooding of the nearby fields making it difficult to farm safely, but the natural fish habitats were slowly being choked out. The goal of these farmers was to restore Four Mile Creek to a full flowing stream–a place fish could thrive without taking additional land from nearby agriculture.
This team set about clearing out the stream and drainage areas. This process allowed new plant growth along the banks which supported the water achieving all required parameters for oxygen, fecal coliform, and temperature. Only two fish from the salmon family were counted in the initial 2003 dredge of the creek. Since then in recent upkeep cleanings, that number has risen to 250. The increased flow of Four Mile also reduced flooding in area, in turn allowing crops to be grown and harvested properly.
With the support of government grants, these REAL farmer-environmentalists continue to keep the stream clear and healthy. Farmers are continually learning and changing to be better stewards of the land, passing those lessons down to the next generations. Challenges like the Four Mile creek are being met with passion, and results are beginning to show. Restoring thriving streams is as vital for the farmers as it is for the fish, and projects like this are a prime example of how farming is leading the charge for environmental change.
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