Washington Water Watch: November Edition

As the year approaches its end, we have all had to rethink how we do many things including work, school, birthdays and holidays. But that hasn’t stopped us from doing our work to protect and restore our river flows through outreach, policy work and litigation. Much of the year we have been working through the watershed planning process to come up with plans to mitigate impairment of instream flows from permit exempt wells. This process has taken 2 years, but hopefully it will have a positive impact on our rivers.

 But there is so much we need to do. Many rivers and streams around the state still lack basic protections, and endangered salmon and steelhead still face an uphill battle for recovery in part because of high river temperatures as a result of low flows. And climate change will continue to challenge how we manage our water resources.

 In this issue you’ll find an update on dam removals and proposals in the Northwest, information on our CLE Winter Workshop now being hosted as three virtual workshops, Water Stories, Giving Tuesday, and the 7th annual One River, Ethics Matter conference. 

CELP has a great team to do this work, but we can’t do it alone. We rely on donations from our members and supporters, and this year a generous supporter has offered a match to all year end donations up to $5,000. You can help us reach our goal and end the year strong by donating on our secure website,


Trish Rolfe,

Executive Director

Read the full Newsletter here.

Drought Declared in Washington

Governor Inslee’s recent declaration of drought in 24 of Washington’s 62 watersheds has triggered a flurry of activity.   By law, drought is declared when a region’s water supply is at 75% of normal (or worse) and this water deficit will cause “hardship” to water uses and users.

04172015 drought areas - dept of ecology

Washington has experienced a fairly normal year for rain, but air temperatures over the winter were nearly 5 degrees F higher than normal, making the 2014-15 winter the warmest on record.  As a result, snow fall was scant.  Mountain snowpack is like a natural reservoir.  As accumulated snow melts over the summer, it percolates into groundwater and feeds the headwaters of streams.   Water will flow in streams during summer months, even with no rain, as a result of snowpack and groundwater reserves.  This year, snowpack is substantially less than normal for the Olympic, Cascade and Northern Rockies mountains, and as a consequence, we are facing a very dry summer season in Washington.

Western US Snowpack (4-1-15)

The biggest impact will be on fisheries.  Irrigated agriculture is also taking a hit, especially in the Yakima basin.  Municipal water supplies, especially for cities with big reservoirs (e.g., Tacoma, Seattle, Everett) appear to be in good shape.

In addition to physical aspects, drought has economic and political dimensions.  The Department of Ecology convenes a Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC) to make recommendations about

drought activities.  The WSAC has requested a $9 million appropriation to drill emergency wells, expedite water transfers, and provide loan and grant funding to farmers.

In an attempt to alleviate instream flow depletion, Ecology and others are conducting “reverse auctions” in the Yakima, Walla Walla and Dungeness basins.

Western US Summer Streamflow Forecast (4-1-15)

Essentially the state offers to lease water rights from farmers who are willing to forego irrigation this summer.  The goal is to keep water in upper tributaries that provide habitat for endangered salmon species.

Ecology is also seeking to lease or purchase existing water rights to offset use of emergency wells in the lower Yakima Valley.  These wells were drilled in 1977 but may not be used except in drought circumstances.  Since 1977, lawsuits and a US Geological Survey study have established that virtually all groundwater in the Yakima basin feeds into the lower Yakima River.  Thus, pumping from emergency wells without mitigation would impair existing users and instream flow water rights.   The bottom line is that water in the Yakima River basin is over-allocated, and in water-short years, junior water rights (called “pro-ratables”) take a big hit.  Ecology will not authorize use of emergency wells without mitigation.

This raises public policy questions.  Should it be the responsibility of Ecology to find “mitigation water” for junior users during a drought?   Should Washington taxpayers underwrite the purchase of water for junior users?

Of particular concern, when junior users convert from annual to perennial crops, dramatically increasing the financial risk associated with drought, who bears that risk?  The water users, or the public?

The Legislature has also convened a “Joint Legislative Committee on Drought” which is meeting regularly to discuss drought actions.   Their meetings can be viewed on TVW.

The drought declaration may be extended to cover even more watersheds, and a statewide declaration is even possible.   Large Puget Sound municipalities are comfortable with full reservoirs, and do not want a drought declaration that would lead their customers to conserve (and thereby reduce revenues).   But, smaller purveyors and stream flows around the state will be hurting given the snowpack scenario.

Drought declarations can lead to much mischief in the public policy arena.  CELP will report on drought activities throughout the spring and summer months to assess how well agencies and the Legislature respond in protecting public resources, i.e., public waters and public funds.


New eastern Washington dams don’t pencil out

On November 25, CELP responded with cautious optimism to the WSU economic draft analysis of new controversial dams and other projects proposed in the Yakima Basin.  The WSU review was done at the request of state legislators concerned about the $5 billion cost for the Yakima Plan for a state struggling with budgets. Today the WSU economists released their draft report for public comment, and are scheduled to submit their final report to the Legislature on December 15.

“The take-home message is that new dams in eastern Washington are money losers,” said Rachael Osborn of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy.  “This is old news:  for over 30 years studies have concluded that new storage projects don’t pay.”

The Yakima Project, jointly led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Washington Dept of Ecology, is a collection of project proposals that include new irrigation dams, aquifer recharge, and fish passage at existing dams, and habitat restoration.  Of the proposed projects studied, only projects tied to restoring salmon showed a positive economic benefit.  The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates five irrigation dams in the Yakima Basin, and efforts are underway to help salmon get past the federal dams.

The report also concluded that development of water markets and water right trading could benefit the basin and offset the impacts of curtailments during drought years.

The WSU draft economic analysis for the Yakima Plan contains the following six points:

  1. The major storage projects of the Yakima Plan, when implemented together, are unlikely to provide positive net benefits.
  2. Net benefits for individual water storage projects are negative, with some exceptions under the most adverse climate and water market conditions.
  3. Instream flow benefits for fish are insufficient to support water storage infrastructure given the net benefit shortfall in out-of- stream use benefits, but proposed instream flows may be supportable through market purchases.
  4. Insufficient evidence exists to assess the economic efficacy of fish habitat restoration with a useful degree of precision.
  5. Reservoir fish passage projects are likely to provide positive net benefits through their pivotal role in supporting wild Sockeye reintroduction into the basin.
  6. Water markets show potential for reducing the impacts of basin-wide curtailment

The findings in the WSU Yakima Economics Analysis repeat a pattern starting in the early 1980s when economists and others have investigated new dams and water projects proposed in eastern Washington.  Taxpayers and ratepayers would pay for most of the cost, rather than irrigators who reap the benefits.  Starting in 2007, the Legislature has spent at least $200 million funding the Dept of Ecology’s Office of Columbia River to study proposals for new dams.   All proposals have failed economic tests, and no new dams have been built.

Eastern Washington is one of the most heavily dammed regions on earth.  Water projects for irrigators are paid for mostly by taxpayers and electric utility ratepayers rather than the irrigators who benefit.  When water scarcity occurs, CELP continues to encourage Washington State officials to implement conservation, improved water efficiencies, water markets, metering, and other affordable tools rather than costly and controversial new water projects.

“The water frontier is over,” said Osborn.   “We cannot dam our way out of water scarcity.”

Comments on the draft economic analysis can be submitted to Dr. Jonathon Yoder,

Links on economics, new water projects in eastern Washington –