This story was first published by The Food and Environment Reporting Network.
NovemberThe Nooksack River was submerged in the US and Canada after a series of devastating storms struck the Pacific Northwest. Cows were swept away and farmers raced to rescue them on boats and jet skis. By the time the waters subsided, thousands of farmers and farmworkers had lost their livelihoods—particularly in British Columbia—and a long-running dispute over how best to manage the Nooksack had gotten a lot worse. It’s a fight that pits farmers against Native communities, the US against Canada, and the demands of development against the demands of conservation. In short, it’s the kind of fight that many Westerners have seen before.
As climate change becomes more severe, rivers like Nooksack throughout the West become less predictable. They’re running shallow in prolonged droughts or extreme heat, then flooding during volatile storms—and that unpredictability is exacerbating old conflicts between farmers and conservationists over how those rivers should be managed. The Nooksack case is an example of this. Farmers on both sides claim that the US could save communities if it managed the river aggressively, with regular flooding control measures and regular dredging. But Indigenous groups—and the scientists who agree with them—say such changes could be disastrous to a river that’s already at risk of ecosystem collapse.
“It’s an existential threat,” says John McLaughlin, an associate professor of environmental science at Western Washington University who’s studied the Nooksack, of the river’s fragility. “It ought to be a wake up call to everyone. And the solutions are also going to take everyone.”
The Nooksack River starts near the foot of Mount Baker, which at a mere 140,000 years old is one of the youngest volcanoes in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The river is fed by heavy snowfall, glacier melt, and heavy snowfall. It then flows into the lowlands, where blueberry farms and dairies line its banks. Many of the Washington farm communities and British Columbia (BC), dairies which were decimated last October are found in the same green valleys. They are somewhat interrupted by the US-Canadian border. The Nooksack runs along Washington’s side and loops to the Lummi Indian Reservation before emptying into Bellingham Bay.
The Nooksack has always been flooded. And even though it doesn’t run through Canada, it has long spilled over the border from time to time, too, refilling ancient tributaries. The river contracts and expands based upon rain and snow melt. This is partly because its headwaters lie so close to an active volcano that it picks-up a lot of silt and sand as the river weaves through the mountains. The sediment provides fertile spawning grounds and habitat for salmon and other fish. However, it also raises the water level which can lead to more flooding.
“The Nooksack River system does not have a dam on it,” says Jay Gordon, the Washington State Dairy Federation’s policy director. “Not one. It roars out. [of the mountains] with no flood control system of any kind, and it hits the lowlands.” Some lowland farming communities keep the waters at bay with dikes, but the Nooksack occasionally overwhelms them. Gordon describes parts of the lowlands as “a bathtub,” where flood waters pool and can sit for weeks without draining.
To some farmers and local officials on both sides of the border, there’s a clear solution to this problem: The US needs to dredge the Nooksack. Washington State used to regularly dredge it by allowing contractors access to the river for gravel mining. But the mining stopped around 30 years ago due to its more stringent regulatory oversight. In the 1990s, the Nooksack and Lummi Nations, as well as regulatory agencies, became concerned about gravel mining affecting salmon spawning grounds. The Endangered Species Act protects the Chinook in the United States.
In the years since, the Nooksack’s waters have gotten higher, rising up to three feet in some places. “I am told that there are now places in Washington State that are literally below river level,” says Mike de Jong, who represents some of the hardest-hit farming communities in BC’s Legislative Assembly. “And that is the result of purposeful decisions.”
De Jong got into BC politics in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of another devastating flood of the Nooksack. “I ended up in Washington, DC, meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers” about how to manage the river, he says. But, after decades of bureaucratic wranglings, very little has been done.
The Nooksack river International Task Force was created by the United States and Canada in 1990. It issued reports and addressed emergency communications in the area, but has not resolved conflicts about how the Nooksack should be managed. For over a century, the two countries also have arbitrated water disputes through the International Joint Commission (IJC), but it hasn’t weighed in on the Nooksack’s management. (The IJC didn’t respond to a request for comment via publication. The Nooksack had been discussed by stakeholders for 30 years before the rains started to fall in November. The river wasn’t dredged. The waters continued to rise. And when a series of historic storms blew through—fueled in part by climate change—the lowlands didn’t stand a chance.
Now, the Washington Dairy Federation and other farming advocacy groups are pushing for new state legislation, which policy director Gordon says would address the Nooksack’s sediment management. De Jong is also exploring a last resort strategy in Canada: suing the US for damages. “When something escapes a property and damages a neighbor’s property, the first neighbor is ultimately responsible,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s a pretty basic legal principle.”
Canadian legal experts believe that a case such as this would not succeed. However, de Jong still hopes that the IJC will arbitrate it. But he also says the lawsuit might finally get the right people’s attention. That way, he says, “The proper steps can be taken to ensure that folks [in communities like] Whatcom County and Abbotsford aren’t having to shoot their cows because they’ve been standing in neck deep water for a week and a half.”
The November flood turned Washington’s Lummi Indian Reservation into a swampy island. “It was the worst flooding that I’ve seen,” Lisa Wilson, a Lummi Nation Council member, told me in a call from her car between meetings. The tribe’s police department rescued residents with boats and, at one point, a dump truck, ferrying families to safety at the Silver Reef Casino. Wilson states that several families were permanently displaced.
However, in December, a member of Washington’s Whatcom County Council proposed that gravel removal be done from the Nooksack. Tribal leaders wrote to the council to express their opposition. The Nooksack Tribe, whose livelihood is also dependent on the river, responded even more strongly: tribal leadership must not consider dredging river.
Salmon have sustained the Lummi people’s way of life for thousands of years. They honor salmon with a ceremonial ceremony, as they are a staple of their traditional diet. “If they were to go extinct on our watch, it would be like we had failed our ancestors,” says Wilson. “We would lose our identity as the salmon people.”
The Nooksack was home to salmon for centuries. Salmon is the main food source for endangered orcas and bears as well as seals and seals. As climate change fuels extreme weather events, the Nooksack’s run is at risk of dying out. It was months before the Nooksack burst, when its waters became contaminated by a deadly heat wave. This killed at least 80 per cent of Chinook salmon that were trying to reach their spawning grounds.
Wilson describes the tribe’s efforts to save the salmon as a “sacred obligation.” She says they have increasingly bolstered the Nooksack’s runs with fish from their hatcheries, and have been locked in an arduous legal process to clarify their water rights for years. “We are the ones that are producing the fish,” she says. “We are the ones that are fixing the habitat.”
Wilson believes that a rush to dredge the Nooksack River is not what this ecosystem needs. Washington State government agencies agree with Wilson. “Recovering habitat for salmon is critically important,” says David Radabaugh, coordinator of the National Flood Insurance Program at Washington’s Department of Ecology. “You pull gravel out of a river, upset the system? That’s going to degrade habitat.”
Radabaugh and his colleagues sympathize deeply with farmers who were affected by recent flooding. But as Curt Hart, the Department of Ecology’s communications manager, delicately put it, “Canada doesn’t have the same sort of rigorous Endangered Species Act as the United States.” A gravel mining operation would need to demonstrate compliance with federal environmental law, as would an expansion of levees or other potential fixes.
Besides, says Radabaugh, “If we remove gravel, does that solve the problem? With a flood This size? I don’t think that’s a question that’s been answered.”
The Nooksack wasn’t the only source of November’s floods—parts of the Pacific Northwest received over two feet of rain that month. Farmers blame decades of red tape and controversial river management for the floods. However, scientists and Native leaders have pointed to other, more older decisions as part of the problem.
Farmers on both sides of the border built their farms in the Nooksack’s floodplain, where the soil was richest. On the Washington side, settlers logged the forests that lined the Nooksack’s banks and paved swaths of land in the river’s basin, removing crucial flood barriers.
The BC side was witness to even more dramatic development. About a hundred years ago, the lowlands were the site of a large lake, but the Canadian government drained it in the 1920s, turning it into some of the country’s most valuable farmland. When the Nooksack jumped its banks, in November, flood waters naturally settled the land where the lake used be. BC farmers were devastated, but residents of Canada’s Sumas First Nation, whose Elders had warned them to build on higher ground, were largely spared. “It is something that our people never would have even thought of doing, altering nature in such a way,” Dalton Silver, chief of the Sumas First Nation, about the decision to drain it.
Now, this history of shortsighted development has put the Nooksack in “grave danger,” according to John McLaughlin of Western Washington University. In a recent study of the Nooksack, McLaughlin focused on six aspects of river health, including the vibrancy of nearby forests and the strength of the river’s flow in the summer. In five out of six categories, he concluded, the ecosystem had already passed what he calls a “global boundary”—the point at which the river can safely avoid collapse. Climate change is only exacerbated the problem.
McLaughlin believes that an ecosystem collapse could lead to the extinction or Chinook salmon. It would also mean less water for farmers—and more flooding. “I use an analogy of a road highway with a guardrail on it,” he says. “You must not cross that, or you risk bad consequences. If you cross it and haven’t hit the bottom yet, you might think everything’s fine—but you are now committed to catastrophe.”
McLaughlin believes that dredging and other proposed solutions, such as expanding dikes or levees could further disrupt the fragile ecosystem. He prefers to wait for the right solutions. “Restoring floodplain forests, for sure,” he says. “Restoring log jams, maybe even restoring beavers.” In the meantime, the Department of Ecology’s Dave Radabaugh is working with Washington communities to help them adapt to future flooding, but the flood line is hard to anticipate as the climate shifts around them. “How much higher should we build?” he says. “There’s no perfect answer to that.”
The floodplain farmers are not satisfied with either of these solutions. “If we can keep people living in outer space for six months at a time, I feel like there should be some way to come together and clean gravel out of the river without damaging salmon,” says Joe Jacobs, a BC dairy farmer who was marooned on his property for days during the November floods. “I kind of feel like it’s not ever going to be fixed.” At a recent meeting in Washington’s Whatcom County, local officials presented a proposal to buy out damaged homes and create a floodway, which would divert a future flood away from farm communities. It would also divert the water to Canada. “They’re looking out for themselves,” BC resident Caroline Mostertman told the Vancouver Sun last week.
If there’s one thing the Nooksack’s many stakeholders agree on, it’s that something needs to change. Most of them also insist they want to work together, and that there’s a compromise to be found, even if no one quite knows what it is yet. “Doing nothing is not a good option right now,” says Jay Gordon of the Washington Dairy Federation. “So are we going to take a risk and do something?”
The Lummi Nation’s Lisa Wilson says tribal leaders have met with state representatives, and “we are definitely in different processes with the farmers as well.”
She insists the tribe isn’t against managing the Nooksack River—far from it. Members are open to repairing culverts and tide gate, restoring wetlands that could better absorb floodwaters and other reforms. Some tribal members even allow dredging. Wilson said that the Lummi Nation is worried about the way Washington State and BC officials have managed rivers in past. An elder who’s mentored her for a number of years has described it as a vicious cycle: non-native people use a natural resource to its maximum limits and beyond. They complain about the sudden loss of that resource when disaster strikes. They ask for more. They’re surprised when disaster strikes again.
“You’re not going to win against nature,” Wilson says. “And we’re in unprecedented times.”