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History of Water Law


Dive Into the History of Water Law

Sinking Creek/Rettkowski V. Ecology

In a case that continued from the 1960 through the 1990’s, ranchers claimed priority water right for Sinking Creek where they watered their cattle.  They believed that the farmers pumping water for irrigation were depleting the stream and filed numerous complaints with the Department of Ecology. 

Ecology eventually determined that there was indeed a connection between the groundwater withdrawals and the diminished flow of the creek.  Ecology decided that the ranchers’ water rights were superior to those of the irrigation farmers. It issued cease and desist orders prohibiting the farmers from making any further groundwater withdrawals.

The farmers appealed to the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB), arguing that Ecology overstepped its authority and had denied them the full process of the law. PCHB stayed the cease and desist orders; the case went to Superior Count then to the Supreme Court.

 Washington Supreme Court upheld the ruling that Department of Ecology had no authority to adjudicate and enforce the water rights and that the Superior Court had jurisdiction to review the orders.



Two consolidated cases, one of which  involves four consolidated cases, present issues arising from the Department of Ecology’s denial of applications for groundwater appropriation permits on the basis that the groundwater sources are in hydraulic continuity with surface water sources and further appropriations are foreclosed under the criteria of RCW 90.03.290.  In the five individual cases before this court, the Pollution Control Hearings Board upheld Ecology’s denial of the groundwater applications.

The court upheld Ecology’s denial of the groundwater permit applications. The court also ruled:

  • Ecology must determine impairment on a case-by-case basis.
  • Continuity between groundwater and a stream with unmet instream flows is not by itself a sufficient reason to determine impairment to minimum instream flows.
  • “A minimum flow is an appropriation subject to the same protection from subsequent appropriators as other water rights.”
  • In stating that the law doesn’t allow for “de minimis” impairment of existing rights, the court established that “any effect on the flow or level of the surface water” in closed streams would mean impairment.

The decision established that de minimis impacts constitute impairment, no matter whether they are observable or significant.

Culvert Case 2001 -2018

In January of 2001,  The United States and twenty-one Washington tribes, asked the U.S. District Court to find that the state has a treaty-based duty to preserve fish runs and habitat, and sought to compel the state to repair or replace culverts that impede salmon migration.

in 2007, the district court held that while culverts impeding fish migration are not the only factor diminishing their upstream habitat, the state’s building and maintaining of culverts that impede salmon migration had diminished the size of salmon runs and thereby violated its obligation under treaties

In 2013, the district court issued an injunction ordering the state to significantly increase the effort for removing state-owned culverts and to replace the state-owned culverts that have the greatest adverse impact on the fish habitat by 2030.

Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson wanted the Court to reconsider the decision that required his state redo the culvert system under its roads to allow for the safe migration of salmon. In 2018 the case went before the Supreme Court who affirmed the ruling. The decision meant that the Order requiring the culverts be removed or repaired would stand and fish must have access to the habitat which they need to recover and thrive. This decision was a significant victory for Tribal treaty rights, in that the right to fish is now understood to include the right to habitat suitable for fish production. (Read more on our blog here)

Campbell and Gwinn 2002

In Department of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, the Court overturned a Yakima County Superior Court decision and determined that the exempt well provision did not allow the developer in this case, Campbell & Gwinn, to drill multiple exempt wells for a 20-lot subdivision because the wells would collectively withdraw more than the specified limit of 5,000 gallons per day.

As clarified by the Court, the exempt well provision is intended to relieve small-scale domestic (residential) water users from permitting requirements and is limited to 5,000 gallons a day, whether intended for single or group domestic uses.

An essential element of the Court’s decision was its conclusion that wells drilled by a developer to service a subdivision constitute a single “group domestic use” rather than a series of individual uses.

According to the Court, a developer building a subdivision qualifies for one exemption for multiple residences and may not drill multiple wells for a single development when those wells will cumulatively withdraw more than 5,000 gallons per day.


In 2001, Ecology adopted an instream flow rule for the Skagit Basin. In 2006, Ecology amended the Skagit Basin rule to establish reservations of water. The reservations provided a legal source of water for rural homes and businesses to use when the Skagit River falls below the instream flow levels. Ecology justified the reservation by using “overriding considerations of the public interest” (OCPI).

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community appealed the rule revision, arguing that the department acted beyond its statutory authority by applying OCPI to create reservations and allowing aggregate uses of water to impair previously established instream flows. In its decision, the court ruled in favor of the Tribe and: 

  • Invalidated the Skagit rule revision that had a reservation of water for future uses.
  • Established that Ecology could not use OCPI to justify water use that impairs existing instream flows.
  • Clarified that OCPI could not be used to justify allocating water for domestic use.
  • Stated that OCPI is a very narrow exception and requires extraordinary circumstances before the minimum flow water right can be impaired.


The Supreme Court overturned Ecology’s approval of a water right permit for growth filed by the City of Yelm. Ecology had conditioned the permit on an extensive mitigation package, which included mitigating the total quantity of water through “in-kind mitigation,” and mitigating small impairment during the spring and fall with habitat improvements (“out-of-kind mitigation”).  Ecology determined that the project was in the public interest and used overriding considerations of public interest (OCPI) to approve the application.

The court ruled that:

  • Ecology cannot use OCPI to justify permanent allocations of water.
  • No impairment of instream flows are permissible, regardless of magnitude or ecological impact
  • Ecology cannot use out-of-kind mitigation, such as habitat improvements, to address impairment of instream flows.


In 2016 a Washington State Supreme Court decision was issued in Whatcom County vs. Hirst, Futurewise, et al.  that stated that in Washington State, under the Growth Management Act (GMA), counties are required to complete comprehensive growth planning that protects groundwater and surface water resources. The county must receive evidence of an adequate water supply from applicants for building permits or subdivisions before allowing the development.

Under contention was whether Whatcom county could allow residents to withdraw water from permit-exempt wells. Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Nooksack River closed most streams to new water right permits, but allowed permit- exempt wells in most of the basin. The county (and Ecology in an amicus brief) argued that Whatcom County sufficiently protected water resources by following the water resource management rule.

The Court ruled that:

    1. Whatcom County failed to comply with GMA’s requirements to protect water resources.
    2. The county has an independent obligation to ensure that new permit-exempt uses do not impair instream flows and closures when making water availability determinations.
    1. Counties cannot rely on the exclusion of permit-exempt groundwater from regulation in the instream flow rule
    2. Counties must make an independent decision about legal water availability.


While the Hirst Decision was specific to Whatcom County, the precedent was interpreted to apply to counties subject to the GMA. Some counties subject to the GMA reacted by refusing to issue building permits or placing the burden for proving water availability fully on the applicant.

HIRST FIX 2017-2018

The Hirst  Decision assigned authority for making water availability decisions to counties who felt that was outside the scope of their knowledge or ability.

Senate Bill 6091 is deemed the “Hirst Fix” because it changed  portions of the Revised Code of Washington (“RCW”) to allow counties to rely on Ecology’s determinations regarding the legal availability of water to issue building permits, as was done prior to the Hirst Decision.

However, other additions to the bill intended to make it easier to issue permits for growth effectively disempowered the original court decision to put water availability as the number one consideration.

Additional Cases

2020’s  Okanogan County Vs. WA Dept of Ecology






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