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Watershed Planning

CELP Staff, Board Members and volunteers have been instrumental in watershed planning units throughout the state. Our work centers on ensuring estimates of water use by new permit exempt wells are accurate, and that plans procure water for mitigation projects that will effectively restore impaired streams and rivers.

Watershed Planning History

The Water Resources Act of 1971 was a landmark statute that required the state to recognize and protect all public uses of Washington’s waterways, including fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, navigation, aesthetics, and water quality. Hailed as a major reform in the water rights arena, the Water Resources Act put a check on water right permitting statutes that had, since 1917, authorized extraction of large quantities of water from Washington’s rivers and aquifers without regard for environmental impacts. Under the new statute, the Washington Department of Ecology divided the state into sixty-two watersheds (WRIAs) and began a program to  adopt instream flow rules that functioned essentially as water rights for rivers.

The Watershed Planning Act was established by the Legislature in 1997  to further encourage the development of comprehensive, long-range watershed planning through voluntary collaborative efforts at the watershed level.

Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs)


The state of Washington is divided into 62 separate WRIAs, the boundaries of which are defined by watersheds. Washington’s 62 WRIAs were created as a result of the Water Resources Act of 1971 and updated with the adoption of the Watershed Management Act of 1998 which established the Watershed Planning Program. The watershed plans must, at a minimum, address short-term and long-term concerns related to water quantity in order to qualify for state funding. Watersheds were also encouraged, but not required, to address planning needs related to instream flows, water quality, and habitat.

You can look up your WRIA “address” here.

Currently, The Nooksack (WRIA 1) and the Lake Roosevelt (WRIA 58) are in the process of adjudication to determine water rights. Learn more about the adjudication process here.

The Hirst Decision

A 2016 Washington State Supreme Court decision, known as the Hirst Decision, limited the ability of a landowner to get a building permit for a new home if the water source was a permit exempt well.

Prior to the Hirst Decision, homebuilders and/or homeowners in rural areas could get water by drilling a well without a permit limited to 5,000 gallons a day. The Hirst decision changed how and where those exemptions would be allowed, requiring the counties to determine if water was legally available before issuing a building permit to make sure the water use from the well did not impair a senior user include and Instream Flow set by rule.

After an uproar from counties, builders, and individuals the legislature passed the Stream Flow Restoration Act, RCW 90.94, (read more below) in 2018. In that legislation15 watersheds that had instream flows set by rule that didn’t specifically mention how to deal with water use by permit exempt wells had to go through a watershed planning process before permits were granted. It also reset the water use limit to 1500 gallons per day (350 gallons during drought). The watershed planning groups were set up in the following WRIA’s:

WRIA 1 Nooksack, WRIA 7 Snohomish, WRIA 8 Cedar-Sammamish, WRIA 9 Green-Duwamish, WRIA 10 Puyallup-White, WRIA 11 Nisqually, WRIA 12 Chambers-Clover, WRIA 13 Deschutes, WRIA 14 Kennedy-Goldsborough, WRIA 15 Kitsap, WRIA 22 & 23 Upper & Lower Chehalis, WRIA 79 Okanogan, WRIA 55 Little Spokane, and WRIA 59 Colville.

Plans were completed and approved by all the planning groups except WRIA7, 8, 13, 14 and 15. Ecology has finalized these plans and sent them on to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board for technical review.

Their review should be complete by October 2023, and any recommendations will be added to the final plans. Once Ecology adopts these plans are finalized Ecology will begin rulemaking for each WRIA. Check on watershed planning progress here.

The Legislation also established a project grant fund to pay for the mitigation projects listed in the plans.

The Streamflow Restoration Act

In January 2018, the Washington State Legislature passed the Streamflow Restoration Act in response to the Hirst decision.

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 the 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:

  1. Watershed plans are prepared, approved, and submitted by watershed planning groups.
  2. The Department of Ecology reviews the approved watershed plans and determines whether they meet the minimum requirements of the law.
  3. Ecology then adopts submitted watershed plans by the deadlines set by legislation or moves into rulemaking.
  4. Interim standards set for new users of household permit-exempt wells allowing for a maximum annual average of 950 or 3,000 gallons per day for new domestic water use, depending on the watershed.
  5. Current maximum limit of 5,000 gallons per day retained for permit-exempt domestic water use in watersheds that do not have existing instream flow rules.


CELP continues to monitor 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 and that water projects are funded.

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