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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.

The History of 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 purpose of the act was to encourage the development of comprehensive, long-range watershed planning through voluntary collaborative efforts at the watershed level. 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. The Department of Ecology was—and still is—responsible for the development and management of these administrative and planning boundaries. Between 1998 and 2012, 44 watershed-based planning groups developed plans and 33 groups adopted their plans.

Watershed Planning 2018 – present

The Hirst Decision

In 2016, a Washington State Supreme Court ruling drastically altered how Washington state addresses water use and rights. Known as “the Hirst decision” the court ruled that Whatcom County failed to protect water resources as required under the state Growth Management Act. Under the decision, counties are now required to make an independent decision about legal water availability before issuing building permits for a new home or subdivision. Previously, it could rely on findings from the state Department of Ecology.

Prior to the ruling, homebuilders and/or homeowners in rural areas, namely unincorporated properties not within the boundary of a water utility or system, could get water by drilling a well. In general, any person or organization is required to secure a right to use that water, but wells were considered exempt because of their relatively ‘low usage’ (defined by the state Department of Ecology as 5,000 gallons or fewer per day). The Hirst decision eliminated this decades old practice of granting those exemptions.

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 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.

As part of our work to protect and restore Washington’s rivers and streams, CELP Staff, Board Members, and volunteers have been key members of watershed planning units throughout the state; most notably the Snohomish (WRIA 7), Cedar-Sammamish (WRIA 8) and Duwamish-Green (WRIA 9) planning units. Our work centered on ensuring estimates of water use by new permit exempt wells were accurate, and that plans procure water for mitigation projects that will effectively restore impaired streams and rivers.

Next Steps

Current Status of Watershed Plans

As of the start of 2022, the majority of Water Resource Inventory Area watershed plans have been approved and adopted, while planning continues for five WRIAs. The Department of Ecology has prepared final draft watershed plans for the remaining WRIAs (7, 8, 13, 14, and 15) and submitted them to the Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) for their technical review. Recommendations by the SRFB are due by October 1, 2023. You can find more about each plan here.

Where We Go From Here

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. We will also work to get water projects funded in each round of funding from Ecology.

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