Can we escape water fights in Puget Sound?

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

This quote kept running through my mind as I completed the eighth part of our series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” The latest installment, published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, is about water resources.

Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Craig Greshman of Gresham Well Drilling drills a new well on Virginia Point in Poulsbo.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

It seems from my interviews that we should have enough water in the Puget Sound region to serve the needs of people while maintaining streamflows for fish and other aquatic organisms. It’s all about managing the resource, as I describe in the story.

What isn’t so clear to me is what we need to do about water rights, and this is where the real hangup can come in. People, governments and developers are allowed to reserve vast amounts of water for various uses, then they simply need to “use it or lose it.” That does not encourage conservation.

Water rights are considered a property right. Even if the Legislature had a plan for clearing up all the conflicts, it would not be easy. So far, the courts have been fairly strong in upholding individual water rights, even when the needs of society call for a new direction.

We’ve all encountered belligerent people who speak out loudly about their property rights. They’ll say, “This is my property, and I’ll be damned if I will have the government telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.”

Well, I’m sorry. But that battle is over. Zoning laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the use of property to protect the rights of the neighbors and the entire community.

But water rights are fairly entrenched and inflexible. It may be in the best interest of a community if a farmer could find ways to grow his crops with less water and share the surplus with a growing population. But is it fair to expect the farmer to give away his water rights for free, or should he be paid a sizable amount of money to set free the water he is holding hostage? Maybe he will need that water in the future, given the uncertainties of climate change.

And then there is the groundwater-permit exemptions for single family homes, allowing withdrawal of up to 5,000 gallons per day of water from a well — even though most families use only a few hundred gallons a day. In addition, the courts have ruled that farmers may use an unlimited amount of groundwater for watering livestock. All these water rights are recorded on the books, competing with other water rights — including instream flows to protect water in the streams for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Such water rights can be issued until there is no water left to appropriate or until there is a real water shortage and people generally agree that an adjudication is necessary. That’s when the courts begin to sort out who is using what water and for how long, trying to resolve the tangled claims and conflicts. While it may seem like the most reasonable solution, the adjudication process involves historical evidence and legal rulings that never seem to end. Such an adjudication has been underway in the Yakima basin for 40 years, according to the Department of Ecology website.

While water supplies in the Puget Sound region seem to be generally adequate for years to come, it is unlikely that people and governments will find a way to share this precious resource, setting the stage for ongoing legal battles.

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

While this quote is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, there is no evidence he ever said it. See the blog entry by Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers. Trying to prove that Twain never said it, however, is virtually impossible. It reminds me of the effort it may take to prove that one of our ancestors put his water rights to “beneficial use,” thus guaranteeing a quantity of water for all time.

Click on image to download the complete graphic
Click on image to download the complete graphic (PDF 2.8 mb).

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