Karen Brown tended to her Christmas tree Monday, but worried that the water it is drinking may end up the most costly thing under the tree this year.
"This could be disastrous," she said. "It could be disastrous all the way around."
Whatcom County is considering changes to water rights that protect salmon in the Nooksack River and manage water for future growth. One of the changes being discussed would shift the burden of determining whether a well can be dug from the county to property owners.
In essence, a homeowner or developer would have to prove a well is not harmful to the environment.
"How do you prove a negative?" asked Brown. "It seems crazy. And it's a real threat."
Many environmentalists have lost faith in Whatcom County officials. Some are even suing the county for failing to adequately address growth and water impacts over the past 15 years. With the county not taking on critical environmental issues, environmentalists believe the burden of protecting fish and water may need to shift to those tapping into the watershed.
"It's as if you have a posted speed limit, but everyone knows no one is going to come around and make sure you're following that speed limit," said Jean Melious, who represents four people suing the county. "Responsibility has to start somewhere."
Homeowners say hiring a hydrologist to get that kind of work done would cost at least $20,000 just to make sure they can keep their water running. If Karen Brown's well is deemed detrimental to salmon runs, she could be forced to disconnect entirely. Because she has no access to city lines or a water association, she could go dry. The home she thought she could use for a retirement fund would get a soaking.
"I mean, who's gonna buy a house without water? It's ridiculous."
Melious called that a "far-fetched scenario." She said the issue is future development, specifically where wells will be allowed and how many of them should be dug.
"People need water, fish need water, farmers need water and we face a lot of issues with it. Growth, global warming, we have to plan for the future," said Melious.
"Whoever controls the water controls you because you can't live without water," added Brown.