Monthly Archives: October 2016


Court Upholds Dungeness Instream Flow Rule that protects River and Fish

News Release
October 25, 2016

 

Contact:

Dan Von Seggern (Center for Environmental Law & Policy)
206.829-8299
dvonseggern@celp.org


 

Court Upholds Dungeness Instream Flow Rule that protects river and fish!

Seattle, WA – On Friday, October 21, 2016, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor upheld the Instream Flow Rule for the Dungeness River basin, denying a challenge from a group of property owners and developers.  The Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) intervened in this matter to defend the Rule, working with the Department of Ecology.  CELP Staff Attorney Dan Von Seggern argued the case along with Ecology’s attorneys.  After the decision, he stated:  “This is a win for the environment and for water management in Washington.  The Dungeness Rule strikes a balance by protecting streamflows, fish, and senior water users, while still providing water for responsible development.  CELP is pleased with Judge Tabor’s decision and hope that this Rule will provide a guide to protecting other rivers in our state.”

In upholding the Rule, Judge Tabor held that the Rule was not unlawful and that Ecology did not exceed its authority when it adopted the Rule.  He also reaffirmed that permit-exempt wells are subject to the “first-in-time” system of water appropriations used in Washington.

The Dungeness River is home to steelhead, bull trout, and four salmon species.  Most of these fish are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  Low river flows, particularly in summer and early fall, block upstream migration of spawning salmon and risk causing extinction of these fish.  Historically, much of the River’s flow has been diverted for irrigation, although irrigators have agreed to limit withdrawals to no more than one-half of the river’s summer flow.  Uncontrolled development using private (“permit-exempt”) wells further depleted streamflows and added to the pressure on fish populations. The Dungeness Rule protects instream flows that are needed to support salmon populations and other instream values, while allowing new residential development through mitigated use of water from permit-exempt wells.

The Dungeness watershed is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and is unique in the Northwest as the only coastal watershed that is dry enough to require irrigation for agricultural crops.  The River is relatively short, flowing 32 miles from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait.  It is used by chinook, coho, chum, and pink salmon as well as steelhead, cutthroat, and bull trout.  All salmon stocks are depressed relative to historic levels, and chinook, chum salmon and bull trout are listed as Threatened under the ESA.  Insufficient stream flow has been identified as a key cause of reduced fish levels.

The Dungeness Rule was developed over a 20-year period through a collaborative process that included state, local, and Tribal governments, property owners, environmental groups, and water users. “This rule is an example of how rules can be set to make sure water resources in the rivers and streams are protected,” said Trish Rolfe, CELP’s Executive Director.

Water for development is provided through a water bank, which ensures that streamflows are not depleted by water for development.  Amanda Cronin of Washington Water Trust explains that the Dungeness Water Exchange “provides an efficient one-stop shop for individual home builders in the Dungeness Valley.  Eligible homebuilders simply begin the building permit process at the County and then submit a mitigation application and one-time payment to the Exchange.”

Judge Tabor ruled from the bench and a written decision is expected in the coming weeks. The case is Bassett et al. v. Ecology, Thurston County case No. 14-2-02466-2.

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Dungeness River © Steve Farquhar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Washington Supreme Court Decision Protects Instream Flows, May Slow Rural Development

by Dan Von Seggern

In an important new groundwater use decision, the Washington Supreme Court held that a county must ensure water is legally available before permitting development. This means that County land use planning must take water availability into account, and the County may not simply rely on Ecology’s instream flow rules to approve development.

Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board (“Hirst”) involved a challenge to Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan ordinance. Under the Growth Management Act, counties develop Comprehensive Plans that designate certain areas for particular types of uses. A County’s  GMA plan must “protect the environment and enhance the state’s high quality of life, including air and water quality, and the availability of water.” Among other types of use, the GMA requires that counties set aside land for “rural” development. This rural element must include measures regulating development to protect water resources.

Like other parts of Washington, Whatcom County faces increasing pressure on its water supplies, and most of the available water has already been spoken for. Ecology’s Nooksack River instream flow rule establishes instream flows for the Nooksack River and other streams in the basin. The Nooksack Rule closes most of the county to further appropriations of water, but says nothing about permit-exempt wells. The County’s rural land planning ordinance merely incorporated Ecology’s Rule – like the Rule, it did not address permit-exempt wells.

Hirst challenged the County’s rural land planning ordinance, on the grounds that it failed to protect rural water resources because it did not address rural permit-exempt well use. The Board agreed, finding that the Comprehensive Plan’s Rural Element did not adequately protect water resources. The Court of Appeals reversed the Board, holding that because the County’s planning ordinances were consistent with Ecology’s Rule, the County need not further regulate groundwater use. This ruling left Whatcom County’s groundwater essentially unprotected, as there were no limitations on the use of permit-exempt wells in much of the county. Hirst then petitioned for review by the Washington Supreme Court (CELP submitted an amicus curiae brief supporting Hirst et al.).

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that a county must protect groundwater supplies when developing its Comprehensive Plan, and simply deferring to Ecology’s Rule is not adequate. Justice Wiggins’ decision explains that the GMA places a duty on a County to make determinations of water availability. Because Whatcom County’s ordinance did not require a determination of water availability, it did not comply with the GMA. The decision reaffirms and extends the earlier Kittitas County v. Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board case, in which the Supreme Court held that counties were responsible for land use decisions that affect groundwater resources.

Hirst is the latest in a series of Supreme Court decisions that extend protection for groundwater and instream flows against over-appropriation. It will have far-reaching effects on protection of groundwater and the associated streamflows and in reducing sprawl caused by unrestricted rural development.

Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, No. 91475-3 (October 6, 2016).

Read the full decision here.