Protecting Rivers and Salmon in a Post-Hirst Future: Hard Work Is Ahead

by Dan Von Seggern

As we discussed in the last issue of Washington Water Watch, the State Legislature passed a bill (ESSB 6091) that was designed to “fix” the Hirst decision.  CELP is deeply concerned about the potential effects of this bill.

First, at least for the next few years, there will be no meaningful controls whatsoever on permit-exempt withdrawals in most of the state.  Most landowners will be able to get a building permit simply by paying a minimal fee, regardless of the effect on streamflows or other water right holders.  Once these new uses have been established, they will represent permanent withdrawals of water, regardless of whether they adversely affect the environment.  Second, and even worse, another part of the bill is clearly intended to overturn the Foster decision, which requires that water withdrawals be mitigated with water.   Foster is a very important control on the use of “out-of-kind” mitigation, which can result in dewatering streams and harm to fish.

The bill does set out processes that are intended to lead to plans (established by watershed planning groups or newly established watershed enhancement committees) for mitigation of well impacts, but its structure creates strong incentives for indefinite delays: any plan adopted would almost certainly be more restrictive than the current situation created by ESSB6091, so that there will be strong pressure to do nothing.

Along with these serious concerns, there is some reason for optimism.  The bill takes a “watershed enhancement” approach and calls for future mitigation plans to offset the impacts of wells on streamflows. As expressions of policy these are welcome statements.   It also provides funding for projects designed to offset the impacts of permit-exempt wells, and at least on paper requires that streamflows be enhanced.  However, as so frequently happens, the devil will be in the details, and the hard work is yet to come.  CELP will be working to ensure that the Department of Ecology’s actions, and those of the watershed enhancement committees, actually benefit streams.

Ecology has announced that it plans to hire additional staff to implement the streamflow enhancement goals of the law.  This is a welcome development.  It has also begun to issue statements offering guidance as to how the new provisions will be interpreted and applied.  How Ecology plans to accomplish the streamflow enhancement goals should become clearer as more guidance is issued.  Ecology will also be responsible for awarding funds to streamflow restoration and enhancement projects and plans to begin accepting proposals this summer.  Careful evaluation of these projects will be critical in order to ensure that real streamflow enhancement occurs.  The work of the legislative task force on out-of-kind mitigation also bears watching, as a “Foster fix” has an even greater potential to impair streamflows.

CELP is cautiously optimistic that a regulatory framework that protects streamflows, fish, wildlife, and other water users can be established.  However, we must be vigilant and carefully evaluate proposals for mitigation of water use, so that the goal of enhancing flows and protecting river/stream environments is actually met.