If a farm no longer has reliable access to water, everyone knows that’s a threat to their crops that need to be irrigated to grow. But the problems start long before that ever happens. Jay Gordon with the Washington State Dairy Federation joined Dillon Honcoop to explain how the uncertainty of a water rights adjudication like state officials have proposed in the Nooksack Basin would start killing farms long before any water were to be shut off.

“When the water code was written, around 1947, the legislature granted an exemption of water rights for four things. It said you need a water right, a water permit, to use water except for, you have a right to 5,000 gallons for domestic purposes, 5,000 gallons for industrial purposes, stock watering purposes, and half acre non-commercial gardens and lawns,” Gordon explained. 

In the late ’90s, the Department of Ecology determined to have a new interpretation of the water code. 

“Instead of reading commas in there, they read periods in there,” Gordon said.

They said their new interpretation was that stock water was limited to the 5,000 gallons that was written into the code about industrial and domestic purposes. Even though the code was written to say the water was limited to livestock without a gallon amount given. 

Ecology then started sending cease and desist letters to farmers, particularly in the Snohomish County area that they were limited to the 5,000 gallons and they said producers needed to limit their animals. 

The new interpretation was taken to court, and even the state attorney general at the time, Rob McKenna, wrote an opinion on the matter. He had agreed that the water was limited to livestock, not by gallons though. 

While the case was being brought through the courts, there was an uncertainty about water rights for producers. Bank lenders took that into consideration and began to restrict new financing for farmers because there wasn’t a clear right to water. 

Operating loans are a needed aspect to farming, Gordon said. With tight markets and inconsistent income, farmers often have to rely on financing to survive. The uncertainty over water access created a question about what a farmer’s land value was, because the land’s value is the primary collateral they need to secure loans. The lender would need an appraisal but an appraiser won’t be able to value the land properly without a clear water right. 

When a farmer’s land value is in question, and they can’t get financing, they have to find new ways to get money for large operating costs. Some farms have been forced to subdivide and sell some of their land for development to cover the costs to keep farming when traditional financing is no longer an option. 

The uncertainty of water rights will cause farms to face this awful decision again. We can expect to see more farmers selling their land when traditional financing becomes unavailable to them, which will inevitably cause housing developments to pop up where farmland once was. 

You can listen to the full interview below: