WRIAs and Watershed Planning 101
What is a WRIA?
WRIA stands for Water Resource Inventory Area. A WRIA generally includes a major river and its watershed, or the area that it drains into. There are 62 WRIAs in Washington to delineate the state’s major watersheds.
Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIA) were formalized under Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 173-500-040 and authorized under the Water Resources Act of 1971, Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 90.54. The Department of Ecology was given responsibility for the development and management of these administrative and planning boundaries. More about the 62 WRIAs.
History of Watershed Planning
The Watershed Planning Act was established by the Legislature in 1997 to set a framework for developing local solutions to watershed issues in Washington. Between 1998 and 2012, 44 watershed-based planning groups developed plans and 33 groups adopted their plans. As planning was completed, the effort switched focus to watershed management. A few of these watershed groups continue to implement priority actions from their plans. –Department of Ecology
Streamflow Restoration and Watershed Planning 2018-Present
In its 2016 Whatcom County et a. v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, 168 Wn.2d 648 (2016) decision (often refered to as “Hirst”), the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the county had failed to comply with the Growth Management Act’s requirements to protect water resources. The Hirst ruling required that counties make an independent decision about legal water availability before determining where homes that would rely on permit-exempt wells can be built. In January 2018, the Washington State Legislature passed the Streamflow Restoration Act (RCW 90.94) in response to Hirst. RCW 90.94 clarifies how local governments can issue building permits for homes intending to use a permit-exempt well for their domestic water supply and requires local watershed planning in 15 WRIAs. The watershed planning groups must evaluate the projected water use by new permit-exempt wells and identify sources of water to offset the new water use by augmenting streamflows.
The Department of Ecology, planning groups, and technical consultants have been working to update watershed plans in the 15 WRIAs since January 2018. Ecology has led the Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Committees in developing Watershed Restoration and Enhancement Plans (watershed plans). Watershed plans must estimate the potential consumptive impacts of new permit-exempt domestic groundwater withdrawals on instream flows over 20 years (2018-2038), identify projects and actions to offset those impacts, and provide a net ecological benefit to the WRIA.
Under the Streamflow Restoration Act:
- Watershed plans are prepared, approved, and submitted by watershed planning groups.
- The Department of Ecology reviews the approved watershed plans and determines whether they meet the minimum requirements of the law.
- Ecology then adopts submitted watershed plans by the deadlines set by legislation or moves into rulemaking.
As part of our work to protect and restore Washington’s rivers and streams, CELP staff and board members have spent the last two and a half years as members of some of these planning groups. CELP staff represented the environmental community on the Snohomish, Cedar-Sammamish and Duwamish-Green watershed planning units, and our volunteers participated in several others. Our work centered on making sure that the estimate of water use by new permit exempt wells is an accurate assessment, and that the plans find water for water mitigation projects that will truly restore that water to the impacted streams in the WRIA.
Where are we now?
Many of these groups have now completed and approved their plans. Seven of the 15 watersheds have now completed watershed plans or a rule. Planning groups in the remaining watersheds are finalizing their plans. All of these groups have until June 30th to approve these plans, however some of the groups (to date, WRIAs 7, 8, 13, 14, and 15) have failed to approve their plans. In any WRIA where a plan is not approved by the deadline, Ecology will begin rulemaking to address the requirements of the law.
You can find more about each plan here.
Plans that were not approved
Where do we go from here?
CELP will continue to monitor the plans and provide comments. We will ensure that Ecology’s rulemaking meets the requirements of the Streamflow Restoration Act and adequately protects river and stream flows. We will also work to get water projects funded in each round of funding from Ecology.