Washington water rights: Will the logjam be broken?

When it comes to water rights in Washington state, it seems to me that the Legislature is trying to sell survival suits on a sinking ship.

Because of budget problems, the Legislature last year slashed 25 percent of the Department of Ecology’s staff in the program that studies water resources and issues water rights. As you can see from Ecology’s map at right (click to enlarge), more than 7,000 water rights are pending, and the backlog is growing.

The latest move is to expedite applications where groups of people are willing to pay for studies to determine if water is available. Reporter Chris Henry wrote about the approved Senate Bill 6267 in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

The new law allows a group of water-rights applicants to get together and pay for the studies needed to process water rights for a given area. Anyone not willing to contribute to the study must wait in line for Ecology to get around to processing their water rights. So the new law works well for water utilities, which have enough money to pay for the studies. It may or may not work well for farmers and others who have limited dollars, depending on their share of the costs.

Some of these studies are quite complex and may cost $100,000 or more.

The whole water-rights system was easier to manage decades ago when the state ignored groundwater and considered only streamflows. If you were approved for a water right on a river, those who moved in upstream were prohibited from taking water that would impair your ability to get your full appropriation.

When issuing water rights, the Department of Ecology must consider:

  • Whether water is actually available,
  • Whether the use is “beneficial” under state law,
  • Whether there is a chance that the amount of water taken will affect someone else,
  • And whether granting the water right is contrary to the public’s interest.

Groundwater withdrawals should work the same way. But now we are talking about pulling water in three dimensions. For example, pumping water from a well at or above sea level has the potential to affect streamflows and create uncertain effects for nearby wells — including those that go deeper or even shallower than the new well.

Complicating the process are the exempt wells for single-family homes that give people a right to take far more water than they would normally use. That amount of water has to be factored into any future water rights that may be allocated.

When you consider the listings of salmon on the Endangered Species List — along with the need to keep certain levels of water in the streams — you begin to understand why the Department of Ecology is nearly paralyzed in issuing water rights.

The Legislature has talked about revamping the state’s water laws, but conflicting interests have kept lawmakers from making any big steps, and some of their small steps have been challenged as wrongheaded.

As water supplies grow more limited, the key to breaking the logjam over water rights may be monitoring and mitigation. Those who want new rights to pump water from the ground may be required to monitor the changes and respond to adverse effects.

For example, when the Kitsap Public Utility District wanted to drill a new well near Seabeck, the district agreed to monitor for seawater intrusion and measure flows in Seabeck Creek. If streamflows in the creek decline to a specified level, water from the well will be used to boost the flow.

The U.S. Geological Survey is considering a study that could help explain the underlying geology of the Kitsap Peninsula and model various water movements, both above and below ground. The study could provide answers about the availability of water on a regional level and possibly suggest the number of people who can safely live on the peninsula.

Check my story in the March 11 Kitsap Sun. Local water officials are trying to determine if they can learn enough from the study to make it worthwhile.

One thought on “Washington water rights: Will the logjam be broken?

  1. Well said and written Chris. This is an extremely important issue which we all must be gravely concerned and I applaud your efforts to bring this to the forefront once again.

    All my best,

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