By Emily Hamann
After more than 15 months of negotiations, seven Whatcom County dairy farmers and the Lummi Nation have come together in a historic collaboration. The two groups will work to clean up the county’s waterways, and keep local shellfish beds open for harvesting.
Since 2014, high levels of bacterial pollution in parts of Portage Bay have meant that Lummi harvesters haven’t been able to dig for clams there. Hundreds of tribal members use shellfish harvesting as their primary income, Jeff James Jr., chief of staff of the Lummi Indian Business Council, said.
“They treat it as their job,” he said. Still more tribal members have the option to harvest clams to feed themselves and their families. But when the bacterial pollution in the water is too high, no one can eat the clams, because there’s a risk they could make people sick.
Not only is harvesting clams the livelihood of many tribal members, it’s also a right guaranteed in the Lummi’s treaty with the U.S. government. Digging for clams is also an important part of the tribe’s culture.
“It’s our way of life. It’s a part of who we are,” James said. “This lifestyle has been practiced for thousands of years.”
Over the course of 15 months, four leaders from the Lummi Tribe and four representatives for the diary industry met to the negotiate the terms of the agreement, called the Portage Bay Partnership.
Rich Appel, of Appel Farms, was at the negotiations, although Appel Farms is not one of the seven farms that’s a part of the partnership.
“These seven dairies had a choice, to work with the Lummi in these water quality improvement plans, or face possible litigation,” Appel said.
James said the tribe was considering bringing a lawsuit, but it would be the last resort. The seven farms that signed the partnership are the same ones that would have faced the suit.
“Rather than go down that path, the tribe was interested in working together,” he said. “Our intent wasn’t to put anyone out of business, but we do know and understand that the water quality needs improvement.”
This way, by working together, James said, they can avoid a nasty lawsuit and also get some relief for the clam diggers who are out of work.
“If we would’ve won the court case it wouldn’t been basically them paying for our court fees,” James said. “Our people are the ones suffering the impacts from this, not the attorneys.”
At the current phase of the agreement, both sides are trying to agree on experts to tour individual farms. After reviewing the practices already in place, the experts will develop a water quality improvement plan for each farm. Two farms, Edaleen Dairy and Twin Brook Creamery, will be the first to go through the process.
Plans are to be finalized by May 1.
If everything goes well, individual improvement plans can be implemented at the rest of the farms.
The agreement also calls for farmers to compensate the Lummi shellfish harvesters who have missed out on income while the shellfish beds have been closed.
At the ceremony signing the agreement, the dairy farmers gave $450,000 to the tribe.
That money came from the individual farms, as well from the local and regional dairy industry. It went to compensate around 300 clam diggers on Jan. 26.
The Whatcom County Conservation District pitched in $150,000, which will go to shellfish bed enhancements.
That will go to help the tribe raise and seed the shellfish beds for future harvests.
Since the 2014 closures, the tribe estimates it has lost out on $1.1 million, including what has already been paid to compensate the clam diggers.
The rest of that was money the tribe spent tending its shellfish beds. Under the partnership, the tribe will get that money back, through a variety of sources. It will go to shellfish bed enhancements, and to pay the water quality experts, James said.
James said the seven farms that were part of the agreement were picked because the tribe thought they would most be willing to come to the negotiating table.
“We looked at these seven as leaders in the dairy industry,” he said. “We thought it would be easier to work with them.”
The dairy industry has been associated in many people’s mind with fecal coliform water pollution since 1996, when the shellfish beds were closed for the first time.
In that case, the bacterial pollution was directly linked to some county dairy farms. In 1998, the state implemented the Dairy Nutrient Management Act, which mandates particular practices and record-keeping farmers must do to try to keep manure from ending up in the water.
In 2006, the pollution in the water returned to safe levels and the shellfish beds were once again able to be harvested again.
They were open until 2014, when areas in Portage Bay were closed again. Now, around 820 acres of Portage Bay’s shellfish beds are closed.
The tribe believes that one of the sources of bacterial water pollution comes from how and when dairy farmers spread cow manure, what farmers call nutrients, on their fields to help the grass grow, which they then feed back to the cows.
“The Lummi Nation recognizes that the dairy industry isn’t the only contributor,” James said. By forming a partnership, James said, both said can work together to clean the water — no matter where the pollution is coming from.
Larry Stap, of Twin Brook Creamery, said the partnership has the potential to do great things for the dairy industry.
He said the money paid out to the clam diggers was part of the cost of doing business to avoid a lawsuit, but he said it was also just a good way for the farmers to help out.
“We’re both farmers, we just farm different things,” he said.
“We just helped our fellow people. They just farm a little bit different, they just farm the water, we farm on the land.”
Stap also thinks the partnership will be an opportunity for both the tribe and the public to learn about steps dairy farmers are already taking to keep cow manure out of streams and the watershed.
“I’m not saying dairy is pure, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s nearly the contributor that everybody assumes.”
Appel also thinks of the partnership in part as a way to clear dairy farmers of the blame for water pollution.
“The dairy industry,” he said, “we look at this as an opportunity to really show transparency.”
Although, he also didn’t say dairy was completely blameless.
“If there are improvements that we could make, we will make them,” he said.
After that, he said, they’ll be able to work together to solve other causes of water pollution, which can include runoff from cities, leaking septic tanks and water running into Whatcom County from Canada.
As a team, the two groups will have more lobbying power to try to fix those issues than if they just work alone.
“We really want to start addressing what we believe are the real problems with water quality in Whatcom County, rather than just point fingers and blame,” Appel said.
James said the tribe also looks at the dairy farmers as allies in solving other sources of water pollution.
“If everything starts working out and the agreement is upheld years down the road we can lobby the state and the federal government together,” James said. “Instead of doing it ourselves, we have the dairy industry standing with us. And vice versa.”
Stap is looking forward to working with the tribe, and solving some of the animosity that has existed between the two groups.
“The tribe, and not to their fault at all, doesn’t know what we do. And we don’t know what they do,” Stap said. “We’re learning so much about each other.”
The partnership is showing him that dairy farmers and the tribe have more in common than they thought. He said, through the discussions, it became clear to him how important it is to tribe that they have healthy shellfish beds that their children and grandchildren can harvest, too.
Stap himself is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. He’ll pass his farm on to his children.
“We’re trying to make our dairy farm and our land better for [our children], they’re doing the same thing for their future generations,” he said. “We’re both focused on the stewardship of our resources.”