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Washington Water Watch: February 2020 Edition

Dear friends of CELP,

This year started off unusually warm and wet with Seattle experiencing its 3rd warmest January on record and the wettest start to the year in over a decade. January was Washington’s 12th warmest on record and among its least snowy. February has also had record-breaking warm days and there were numerous floods across Western Washington. This trend is worrisome for our water resources with more rain and less snow during the winter months leading to droughts during the summer. Thankfully we have received a lot of snow in the mountains in the last few weeks and our snowpack is now over 100% of normal. We will be monitoring what happens in the next few months to see if we will experience another drought. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we have been working hard in Olympia to protect Washington’s waters. This year’s legislative session has kept CELP very busy dealing with over a dozen water bills. But our hard work would not be possible without you. We rely on generous donations from our members and supporters to hold our lawmakers and agencies accountable for protecting Washington’s rivers and streams. If you haven’t renewed your membership for 2020, you can do it today on our secure website, www.celp.org.

In this issue you will find information about water banking, water bottling, the legislative session, a call to action, Clean & Abundant Waters lobby day, the Spokane River Instream Flow Rule, upcoming events, and Water Stories. 

Sincerely, 

Trish Rolfe

Executive Director

trolfe@celp.org

Read the Full Newsletter

Sol Duc Falls Olympic National Park by Julie Titone

Honoring Spokane businesses, American Whitewater for River Protection

For Immediate Release (February 26)

Honoring event will launch campaign to protect Spokane River, a test case for rivers statewide

Contacts:

Summary: The 13th annual Winter Waters celebration is jointly hosted by the Upper Columbia River Group of Sierra Club and CELP.  UCR Group, based in Spokane, will honor “Spokane River Flow Champions.”   Link to event webpage.

Who is being honored:

Timing, historical significance:    2020 is a pivotal year for protecting a clean, flowing Spokane River.  Decisions about how to manage water quantity and quality in the Spokane River have consequences for rivers throughout Washington.

Protecting Spokane River summertime flows.   In July 2019, the State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Sierra Club, CELP and American Whitewater, holding that the Washington Department of Ecology failed to protect Spokane River flows as required by the Water Resources Act. (link). Ecology appealed, and on May 14 the state Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the case.

Spokane businesses – ROW Adventures (Peter Grubb), Silver Bow Fly Shop (Sean Visintainer), and FLOW Adventures (Jon Wilmot) – actively assisted in the petition and lawsuit asking the State to recognize and protect impacted businesses when setting flows for the Spokane River.  

The Upper Columbia River Group is also honoring Thomas O’Keefe of American Whitewater, for his central role in protecting the Spokane River.  American Whitewater is the primary advocate for the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers throughout the United States.  

Cleaning up the Spokane River’s PCB pollution.  Water quality in the Spokane River is already compromised, and now faces two major threats, from both the Trump Administration and the State of Washington.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back fish consumption standards that control toxic PCBs.  These watered-down standards threaten public health.

The Department of Ecology is also weakening clean water standards through its new “Variance” process, which will allow municipal and industrial polluters to continue to put large quantities of PCBs into the Spokane River.  In 2020, the State will hold public meetings and take public comment on the Variance proposal. 

Launching a statewide campaign for a clean, flowing Spokane River.  At the March 6 honoring event, Sierra Club will launch a statewide effort to involve the public in agency decisions regarding the Spokane River.  With tribes leading efforts to restore salmon to the Upper Columbia Basin, Sierra Club’s campaign seeks clean, flowing water to support the return of spawning salmon to the Spokane River.

When: Friday, March 6th, 2020 6:00 pm- 9:00 pm 

Where: Spokane’s Historic Patsy Clark Mansion, 2208 W. 2nd Ave

Tickets: $40 per person, $70 for two (purchase online or at the door-please RSVP).  

Quotes (from the legal challenge to protect summertime flows, Spokane River):

       Peter Grubb, ROW Adventures:

“The importance of the Spokane River to those living and recreating in the area cannot be overstated. In fact, I believe that the Spokane River offers the best natural whitewater experience available in a major U.S. city. It offers a whitewater experience that is accessible to a broad cross-section of users, from beginning rafters to experienced whitewater paddlers.” 

“The 850 cfs [cubic feet per second] flow that was enacted as a minimum flow in the final Spokane River Instream Flow Rule could eliminate a major portion of our business. We have found that the whitewater trips at higher flows are more popular with clients than the float trips at lower flows. Because the Instream Flow Rule only protects low river flows (e.g. 850 cfs) for much of the summer season, it would reduce the amount of time that we can run whitewater trips and our business would be adversely affected.”

       Sean Visintainer, Silver Bow Fly Shop:

“River flow is critical for my business. In addition to absolute water levels, the aesthetics of the river determine how likely clients are to want to fish. At 750 cfs fishing the Spokane is far less attractive, and even at 850 cfs people are likely to choose other activities over fishing.  I believe that a higher minimum summer flow would be very helpful to my business. The river habitat is more productive for fish at higher levels, and the aesthetics are much better than at lower flows. At or below 850 cfs, the habitat where fish are found is more fragmented, water temperatures may be higher in some stretches, which is not good for trout, and the water moves at a much slower pace.
I estimate that we lost approximately 40 guiding days in the summer of 2015 due to the low river flows. At times we were unable to navigate portions of the river due to low water. Fishing restrictions due to the low flows and high temperatures (fishing was restricted to before 2:00 PM) also reduced fishing opportunities.”

       Jon Wilmot, FLOW Adventures:

“The Spokane River is a critical amenity for the city of Spokane and the surrounding area, and is one of the most popular recreational features of the area. Because of its proximity to the city, it is possible to run half-day or one-day trips without the need to drive significant distances. This outstanding accessibility makes Spokane River trips feasible for visitors with limited time. I am not aware of any other city that has this kind of local whitewater experience available to visitors. I depend on the River for a major portion of my business, and my ability to operate on the River is dependent on adequate instream flows.”

Event sponsors:  * Upper Columbia United Tribes * Adventure Travel Trade Association/Adventure 360 * Eymann Allison Jones Law Firm * Northwest Whitewater Association * American Whitewater  * Hydropower Reform Coalition * Columbia Institute for Water Policy * Rachael & John Osborn * Linda Finney & Tom Soeldner * Morton Alexander & Paige Kenney * Joyce & John Roskelley * Suzy Dix-Windermere * Allen “AT” Miller-Lukins & Annis Attorneys at Law * Jeff Lambert * Kathy Dixon & Barbara Rasero * Fred Christ *


July Drought Update

Summer officially began a few weeks ago and Washingtonians are now out hiking, camping and enjoying all the outdoors activities our state has to offer. But this warm, dry weather comes with frightening prospects for Washington’s rivers and streams. As you may have heard, Governor Inslee declared an emergency drought back in early April and since then he has expanded it to over half of the state. Snowpack conditions are less than 50% of the average for this time of year, and 83% of our rivers and streams are flowing well below normal with many experiencing record lows.  

The Naches River flows low as it feeds into the Yakima – Washington State Department of Ecology.

This is not good news for Washington’s rivers and the fish that depend on them. Statewide, more than two dozen salmon populations are listed as endangered, and this year’s drought could cause these salmon populations to dwindle even more, hampering recovery efforts for the endangered Resident Orcas as well. Low flows are also impacting water quality in many of our rivers and streams, and causing rafting and kayaking business to cancel summer trips. In many areas of the state water users have already been told to cut back their water use until stream flows improve. As bad as this all is it’s likely to get much worse, Climate Change and our states population growth continue to strain Washington’s already over-allocated water resources.  

Even in light of all this, there is still immense pressure to give away our water, like a proposed Crystal Geyser water bottling plant in Randle, Washington that is planning to take 325,000 gallons a day out of the Cowlitz river watershed if its permit is approved by Ecology. That’s where CELP comes in. As Washington’s only water defender, CELP has worked passionately since 1993 to protect and restore clean, flowing waters in Washington, and we are now working around the state to stop this wholesale giveaway of our water resources, and restore flows in the many rivers and streams across the state. But we can’t do it alone.  Your support now means more than ever. Please consider making a donation today.  You can donate online at our secure website, or send us a check in the mail. CELP’s work to protect Washington’s water resources depends on it.    

Take a look at current streamflow conditions here: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/water-dashboard/surface?state=wa


Court: State failed to protect Spokane River’s summertime flows

For immediate release

June 27, 2019

Appeals court sides with Spokane River advocates:  State failed to protect Spokane River summertime flows

Contacts:

SPOKANE – On June 26, 2019, the Washington State Court of Appeals Division II ruled in favor of Spokane River advocates, finding that the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) failed to protect summertime flows needed by the river, and thousands of boaters, fishers, anglers, and businesses.  The court, in rejecting Ecology’s Spokane River rule, underscored that the agency arbitrarily disregarded thousands of public comments, boater surveys, an analysis comparing the aesthetics of different flows, and testimony of river-dependent businesses.

Ecology adopted the Spokane River flow regulation in 2015. Water advocacy groups Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP), American Whitewater, and Sierra Club filed an appeal, arguing that the state was required to consider all uses of the river, not just fishery uses, in adopting an instream flow regulation or rule for the river. The court agreed, holding that Ecology did not have discretion to disregard recreational and aesthetic use of the river.

“During hot summer months, Spokane River flows must be protected for community recreational and aesthetic use, as well as fish and wildlife,” said John Osborn, conservation chair for the local Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group. “The Department of Ecology, which has a long record of issuing water rights to the point of endangering rivers and aquifers, should not be allowed to further degrade the Spokane River by leaving open the door for more water rights.”

The court ruled:

  • “The [Spokane] river is a central feature of the region’s identity, and Spokane residents view the river as an integral part of their community. (Opinion, p.3)
  • Ecology may not “narrowly protect only one instream value that Ecology deems ‘best’”, but must “meaningfully consider a range of instream values . . .” (Opinion, p. 17)
  • “Ecology’s explanations for establishing instream flows based only on fish habitat studies without regard to how its proposed flow would protect other values was arbitrary and capricious. Therefore, the resulting Rule is invalid.” (Opinion, p.21)

“The Court recognized that rivers have many valuable uses, and that determining the best flow requires balancing among those uses. If fish need a certain flow, that wins out. But here more water would be better for fish as well as recreational uses.  Ecology ignored recreational and aesthetic uses of the river at their peril,” said Andrew Hawley of the Western Environmental Law Center, attorney for the appellants.

“Through the process of setting a minimum instream flow, Ecology chose to ignore the needs of recreational users of the Spokane River,” said Thomas O’Keefe of American Whitewater. “Today the court agreed that a minimum flow of 850 cfs would not be adequate to support rafting, kayaking, and other recreational uses of the river. Ecology must seek to protect multiple instream values and this ruling makes clear that the agency has a responsibility to do that.”

“Today’s decision means Ecology must consider all uses of the river (and other rivers and streams in Washington) and provide meaningful protection of instream values,” said Dan Von Seggern, attorney with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “The Spokane River supports fish populations, rafting and kayaking, summer recreation and riverside habitat. Climate change and increased demand for water will put more and more pressure on these uses of the Spokane in the future. An instream flow rule will protect the river from these threats.  Unfortunately, by ignoring thousands of public comments, considering only fish habitat and protecting only a near-drought level summer streamflow, Ecology failed to consider recreation, navigation and the river ecosystem in general.  We hope that Ecology will now set a summer flow level that considers all of these uses, and protects more of the water that now flows in the River.”

“We hope this decision marks a turning point in how the Department of Ecology approaches its task of protecting the people, fish, and wildlife that depend on healthy rivers,” said Andrew Hawley, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Going forward, we expect to see Ecology make decisions that account for all the beneficial uses our shared rivers have to offer.”

The Department of Ecology could appeal this decision to the Washington Supreme Court, or accept the decision and go back to work on the Spokane River rule, fully involving the community in adoption of a new rule.

Appellants are Sierra Club, Center for Environmental Law & Policy and American Whitewater, and are represented by attorneys Dan Von Seggern (CELP) and Andrew Hawley (Western Environmental Law Center).

More background available here.

Court of Appeals’ Ruling on Spokane River Flows:  here.

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Join CELP and CCA Lower Columbia to Learn about Protecting Streamflow and Fish Habitat in Southwest Washington

Join the Coastal Conservation Association Washington’s Lower Columbia Chapter for their November meeting and learn about protecting streamflow and fish habitat in southwest Washington.

CELP’s Water Policy Organizer Nick Manning will be presenting and discussing protection efforts for the Cowlitz, Lewis, Grays and Elochoman Rivers. Bring questions and a friend (or two).

Food and drink will be available. All are welcome to attend!

  • When: Thursday, November 8 @ 6:30 pm
  • Where: The Carriage Restaurant — 1334 12th Avenue, Longview WA

Hirst Update: Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Committees

by Trish Rolfe
Last session, the Washington State Legislature passed a streamflow restoration law, ESSB 6091, in response to the Supreme Court’s

Hirst decision. Hirst changed how counties could approve or deny building permits that use permit-exempt wells for a water source.

The law, RCW 90.94 Streamflow Restoration, helps protect water resources while providing water for rural residents reliant on permit exempt wells. The law directs local planning groups in 15 watersheds to develop or update plans that offset potential impacts to instream flows associated with new permit-exempt domestic water use. The law splits up these watersheds into two groups: those with previously adopted watershed plans and those without.

The Nooksack, Nisqually, Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Okanogan, Little Spokane, and Colville basins all have previously adopted watershed plans. For these seven basins, local watershed planning units are to update their watershed plan in order to compensate for the impacts of new permit exempt well uses.
The law identifies the Nooksack and Nisqually basins as the first two to be completed. They have until February 2019 to adopt a plan; if they fail to do so, Ecology must adopt related rules no later than August 2020. Planning units in the Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Okanogan, Little Spokane, and Colville basins have until February 2021 to develop their plans. Until watershed plans are updated and rules are adopted in these seven watersheds, new permit-exempt wells require only payment of a $500 fee. The maximum withdrawal is 3,000 gallons per day per connection on an annual average basis.

Deschutes River – Photo from WA Dept of Ecology

Eight other watersheds do not have previously adopted watershed plans. They are Snohomish, Cedar-Sammamish, Duwamish-Green, Puyallup-White, Chambers-Clover, Deschutes, Kennedy-Goldsborough, and Kitsap. For these eight basins:

  • Ecology will establish and chair watershed committees and invite representatives from local governments, tribes, and interest groups.
  • The plans for these watersheds are due June 30, 2021.
  • New permit-exempt wells require payment of a $500 fee.. The maximum withdrawal is 950 gallons per day per connection, on an annual average basis. During drought, this may be curtailed to 350 gallons per day per connection for indoor use only.
  • Building permit applicants in these areas must adequately manage stormwater onsite.

CELP has been appointed to participate on the Snohomish, Cedar-Sammamish and Duwamish-Green watershed planning units, and we have volunteers participating in several others.

The law also provides $300 million until 2033 for projects that will help fish and streamflows. Watershed planning groups will recommend proposals for funding by Ecology to achieve this.

Litigation News: Freeing the Similkameen River and Dungeness River Rule Challenge

by Dan Von Seggern

CELP Continues Fight to Free Similkameen River

The long-running battle to remove this environmentally damaging and economically unjustifiable Enloe Dam continues. A major tributary to the Okanogan River, the Similkameen flows through 122 miles of potential salmon habitat in British Columbia and Washington. A fish-blocking dam was constructed on the River in 1922 and has not generated power since 1958. The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD), which owns the dam, is attempting to restart power generation at the dam. The power the dam would produce is not needed and would be much more expensive than the PUD’s current sources of electricity.

On September 13, along with the Sierra Club and Columbiana, CELP filed a Notice of Intent to Sue the Okanogan County PUD as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over the dam’s effect on ESA-listed Upper Columbia steelhead and Chinook salmon. The Notice is the first step towards filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act. We contend that the dam unlawfully harms ESA-listed fish species, that the process of evaluating the dam’s impact on fish was inadequate, and that FERC unlawfully failed to consult with NMFS regarding the listed fish, as the Endangered Species Act requires.

In a separate action, CELP has asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review FERC’s giving the PUD additional time to begin construction. The Federal Power Act requires that construction be started within the period of a hydroelectric license, and allows only a single two-year extension. When the PUD failed to begin construction within the required time, FERC “stayed” revocation of the license, effectively giving the PUD additional time. CELP believes that FERC lacked authority to “extend” the license in this manner and that it should have allowed public participation in the license amendment process.

Dungeness River Rule Challenge

This case (Bassett et al. v. Ecology, Case No. 51221-1-II) is a challenge by a group of property rights activists and developers to the Department of Ecology’s Instream Flow Rule for the Dungeness River, WAC 173-518.  CELP supports the Rule, which provides for mitigated use of new permit-exempt wells while protecting instream resources.  After the plaintiffs filed suit against Ecology, CELP joined in the case as an intervener to argue in favor of the Rule. CELP and Ecology prevailed in Thurston County Superior Court, and plaintiffs appealed.   Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the case on October 18 and we are now awaiting the Court’s ruling.

Protecting Rivers and Salmon in a Post-Hirst Future: Hard Work Is Ahead

by Dan Von Seggern

As we discussed in the last issue of Washington Water Watch, the State Legislature passed a bill (ESSB 6091) that was designed to “fix” the Hirst decision.  CELP is deeply concerned about the potential effects of this bill.

First, at least for the next few years, there will be no meaningful controls whatsoever on permit-exempt withdrawals in most of the state.  Most landowners will be able to get a building permit simply by paying a minimal fee, regardless of the effect on streamflows or other water right holders.  Once these new uses have been established, they will represent permanent withdrawals of water, regardless of whether they adversely affect the environment.  Second, and even worse, another part of the bill is clearly intended to overturn the Foster decision, which requires that water withdrawals be mitigated with water.   Foster is a very important control on the use of “out-of-kind” mitigation, which can result in dewatering streams and harm to fish.

The bill does set out processes that are intended to lead to plans (established by watershed planning groups or newly established watershed enhancement committees) for mitigation of well impacts, but its structure creates strong incentives for indefinite delays: any plan adopted would almost certainly be more restrictive than the current situation created by ESSB6091, so that there will be strong pressure to do nothing.

Along with these serious concerns, there is some reason for optimism.  The bill takes a “watershed enhancement” approach and calls for future mitigation plans to offset the impacts of wells on streamflows. As expressions of policy these are welcome statements.   It also provides funding for projects designed to offset the impacts of permit-exempt wells, and at least on paper requires that streamflows be enhanced.  However, as so frequently happens, the devil will be in the details, and the hard work is yet to come.  CELP will be working to ensure that the Department of Ecology’s actions, and those of the watershed enhancement committees, actually benefit streams.

Ecology has announced that it plans to hire additional staff to implement the streamflow enhancement goals of the law.  This is a welcome development.  It has also begun to issue statements offering guidance as to how the new provisions will be interpreted and applied.  How Ecology plans to accomplish the streamflow enhancement goals should become clearer as more guidance is issued.  Ecology will also be responsible for awarding funds to streamflow restoration and enhancement projects and plans to begin accepting proposals this summer.  Careful evaluation of these projects will be critical in order to ensure that real streamflow enhancement occurs.  The work of the legislative task force on out-of-kind mitigation also bears watching, as a “Foster fix” has an even greater potential to impair streamflows.

CELP is cautiously optimistic that a regulatory framework that protects streamflows, fish, wildlife, and other water users can be established.  However, we must be vigilant and carefully evaluate proposals for mitigation of water use, so that the goal of enhancing flows and protecting river/stream environments is actually met.


Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 33 — Lower Snake River

by Nick Manning

Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 33 encompasses the Lower Snake Watershed, including a large portion of the Snake River and its numerous tributary creeks and streams. Originating in the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming, the Snake River runs through southeast Washington, meeting the Columbia River before flowing west into the ocean.  Of the watershed itself, 84% is privately owned, a majority of which is cropland. As a result, most—if not all—of the available water in the Lower Snake Watershed has already been spoken for, according to the Department of Ecology (Ecology) in its WRIA 33 report. Especially during summer months when demand is highest and flow levels are lowest, growing populations, declining groundwater levels, changing climate patterns, and existing excessive damming and pollution have reduced water availability to dangerous levels for local communities and the environment. As of this report, no instream flow rule or watershed plan exists to address this issue.

The Lower Snake Watershed has been designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as critical habitat for four threatened species of salmon. As recently as 1930, half a million salmon ran through the Snake River annually, but by 1990, only 78 made the full trip. In their recovery plan, NOAA reports that more than half of historic salmon habitat has been blocked by dams, with remaining spawning areas in wide river valleys often degraded by development, withdrawals of water, and erosion. Despite being listed as threatened for decades, most wild Snake River salmon and Steelhead returns remain at about the same levels as when they were first listed in the late 1990s. More importantly, the wild returns are still nowhere near NOAA recovery targets, which must be met for eight consecutive years. Federal courts have ruled repeatedly that salmon recovery is impossible without dam removal along the Lower Snake River, but no action has materialized.

Exacerbating the damage to salmon populations and water scarcity is the issue of pollution in the Lower Snake Watershed. In a study conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), it was reported that the Lower Snake waters are degraded enough as to be listed under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. This designation is reserved for waters that do not meet the standards of the Clean Water Act and requires Washington State to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of discharge into the river. However, most of the land in the watershed is private cropland whose owners have senior irrigation water rights. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for Ecology to monitor all activity affecting the river. This irrigation, combined with grazing livestock and sedimentation from forest roads, causes unmitigated runoff and poses an ongoing threat to salmon populations and overall ecosystem health.

While water levels are declining, and water is not legally available, Ecology has not closed the watershed to new appropriations. However, Ecology has stated that new water appropriation is unlikely without full mitigation. Despite this, the watershed and salmon populations that rely on it are in danger. There is currently no minimum flow level established for the watershed, nor any state recovery plan. New water appropriations have mostly halted, but senior rights holders are still able to take water beyond recoverable levels, and several dams along the river are detrimental to threatened salmon runs. In watersheds like this one where multiple issues intersect, establishing instream flow rules is critical. Instream flow rules in the Lower Snake River Watershed could ensure sufficient water levels and habitat for salmon runs, make the stream more resilient to pollution, and help mitigate overuse from senior water rights holders. CELP urges the Department of Ecology to follow up on its responsibility to set instream flows for WRIA 33 to ensure quality and quantity of water for critical salmon populations and local communities.


WA State Legislature Passes Flawed “Hirst Fix”

by Dan Von Seggern

Our state legislature began this year’s session by passing a bill to remove the 2016 Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board (“Hirst”) decision’s protections for groundwater and streamflows. Hirst reaffirmed existing law and required that counties ensure water is both physically and legally available before granting building permits.   This common-sense rule provided a critical check on withdrawals of groundwater that affect streams and rivers, and harm fish habitat.  Unrestricted groundwater withdrawals can impair the rights of senior water holders, including users of existing wells who are now seeing their wells go dry.  Worse yet, the bill takes a step towards reversing the Foster v. Ecology decision, which requires that impacts to streams be mitigated with replacement water, rather than with non-water (“out-of-kind”) habitat restoration projects.

Concerned that having to show that water was actually available could slow development in rural areas, counties, the building industry, and property rights groups pressured the Legislature to find a “fix.” On January 18, the Legislature passed a bill (ESSB 6091) that allows counties to approve building permits that rely on permit-exempt wells.

  • In WRIAs where Ecology has adopted an instream flow rule that specifically addresses permit-exempt wells (for example, WRIA 18, the Dungeness River), compliance with the applicable rule is sufficient to show water availability for a building permit.
  • Where Ecology has adopted a rule that does not speak to permit-exempt wells, a plan to restore and enhance streamflows is to be generated. In WRIAs that created watershed plans under the 1998 Watershed Act, the bill requires that these plans be updated to include projects to “measure, protect, and enhance streamflows,”   and to offset impacts of permit-exempt wells.
  • If no watershed plan was previously developed, the bill directs formation of “watershed restoration and enhancement committees” composed of stakeholders. These committees are heavily weighted towards stakeholders who have an interest in developing water, rather than preserving the resource, and CELP is concerned that they would not have adequate incentives to truly restore and enhance the streamflows.
  • In watersheds where Ecology has not yet adopted an instream flow rule, an applicant need only show that water is physically present (in other words, there is no requirement to mitigate or compensate for water use).   This is the situation in about half the state’s watersheds, including some that are experiencing high growth pressures such as the Cowlitz River (WRIA 26).

ESSB 6091 stresses a “watershed restoration and enhancement” approach, rather than requiring that water use from permit-exempt wells be mitigated.  While the goal of protecting and enhancing streamflow is a worthy one, this bill has significant flaws and will not provide adequate protection for streams, fish, or people who rely on them.  Development is essentially unrestricted in most areas until the new plans are completed (2019 – 2021).  The damage to streams will likely be done before any regulations are established.

ESSB 6091 also undermines mitigation of future water use by authorizing “out-of-kind” mitigation projects (such as streambank restoration or addition of large woody debris to a river channel; by definition, such projects do not provide replacement water) to compensate for new water uses, rather than requiring replacement water to maintain streamflows.  CELP believes that out-of-kind projects will become the path of least resistance in compensating for water use, and streamflows will inevitably be impaired.  Even the best habitat is of little use if there is insufficient water in the stream.

CELP is especially disappointed that ESSB 6091 lacks any metering provision, or any other method to determine how much water is actually used. Without metering, compliance with the limits in RCW 90.44.050 or with any limits set by the respective watershed committees cannot be verified, and there will be no way to know whether the impact of permit-exempt wells is actually being “offset.”   Because quantities cannot be verified, water use under this scheme is in practice unlimited.  Simply relying on users not to exceed allowable limits is poor policy and could make much of the watershed protections plans meaningless.

ESSB 6091 requires Ecology to conduct a pilot study of “the overall feasibility” of metering groundwater withdrawals (including permit-exempt wells) in the Dungeness (WRIA 18) and Kittitas county (WRIA 39) areas.  But no pilot project is needed.  Ecology’s rules in these areas already require that new permit-exempt wells be metered, and metering has already proven feasible. Rather than directing Ecology to waste time and resources on these studies, a better approach would be to require metering on all new permit-exempt wells, so that the data needed to ensure that streamflow impacts are compensated for can be gathered.

Finally, ESSB 6091 establishes a legislative “task force” with the mission of identifying changes in law to effectively overturn the Supreme Court’s 2015 Foster v. Ecology decision.  Foster held that water use that impairs an instream flow or other senior water right must be mitigated by providing substitute water at an appropriate place and time.  This provided important protections for salmon, which depend on water being present in streams at the time it is needed for migration, spawning, and rearing.  The bill authorizes a list of pilot projects that appear intended to demonstrate out-of-time, out-of -place, or out-of-kind mitigation.  CELP is concerned that this provision is designed to reach a preordained conclusion that out-of-kind mitigation is acceptable, and to pave the way for its broader use.  The consequences to Washington’s rivers and the fish that depend on them may be disastrous.