CELP’s mission is to promote the public interest in the management and allocation of water resources.  One of our jobs is to review all draft and new water right decisions issued by the Department of Ecology (called Reports of Examination or ROEs).  A recent Ecology ROE on the Okanogan-Columbia pushes the boundaries of credibility.  
 
At issue is whether a transferred water right “taps the same body of groundwater” as the original right.  Ecology proposes to approve a transfer for the Sunserra Resort at Crescent Bar (south of Wenatchee).  The transfer would move water 122 miles downstream (yes, you read that right) – from an aquifer that discharges to the Okanogan River near the town of Okanogan, to an aquifer beneath Crescent Bar, south of Wenatchee.  Ecology’s theory: because both aquifers are connected to the Columbia, they are therefore connected to each other.
 
 
        Sunserra Resort.  Washington Deptartment of Ecology
        proposes to approve a transfer of water 122 miles:
        from an aquifer that discharges to the Okanogan River
        (near the town of Okanogan) to an aquifer beneath
        Crescent Bar (south of Wenatchee).
                       (source: Sunserra Resort website)
 
In the late 1990s, CELP, several tribes, and the Department of Ecology battled would-be water users over the legal requirement that ground and surface waters be managed as an integrated resource.  One result of that lawsuit was the Washington Supreme Court’s holding in Postema v. PCHB that groundwater rights must consider impacts on stream flows.  Another result was development of the “Capture Report” – a highly regarded technical review of methods to assess ground-surface water relationships in the water right permitting process.  
 
From review of the Sunserra and Whitman County transfers (discussed below) it is apparent that Ecology is taking the hydraulic continuity test beyond common sense.  According to the draft ROEs, if water is in some way connected, then it constitutes the “same body of groundwater.”  The authority for this rule arises from a new water resources policy document (No. 2010) issued in February 2007.
 
Could it be that the Sunserra Resort ROEs are driven by the current mania to grant water rights to Columbia River mainstem water users, regardless of impacts or science?
 
WHITMAN COUNTY-HAWKINS TRANSFERS:  This just in – the Whitman County Water Conservancy Board has approved transfers of three water rights to support a new big box development on the Idaho-Washington state line.  The water rights are being transferred from surface and groundwater sources up to 30 miles distant from the new place of use.  The aquifers targeted for pumping are in dire condition, with water levels declining at the rate of 1-3 feet per year due to existing unsustainable pumping in the region.  Click here for more information on the Grande Ronde Aquifer.
 
Rationale for the transfers comes from Ecology hydrogeologist John Covert who assured the Board that:
 
o    “all of the wells associated with this change application are completed in the basalt formations of the Columbia River Basalt Group and will be withdrawing from the same body of public groundwater”
 
o    “. . . the application is a surface water right to a groundwater change . . . Both the shallow groundwater at the proposed point of withdrawal and the surface water at the original point of diversion, share a common recharge area and are part of a common flow regime.  Given the tributary nature of the groundwater at the proposed point of withdrawal, both the shallow groundwater at the new point of withdrawal and surface water at the original point of diversion, share the same source of supply”
 
In other words, all Columbia basalt aquifers are considered the same source of supply!  And, the condition of the aquifer (i.e., unsustainable, dropping water levels) is irrelevant.  See the WSU appeal page for more on this problem.
 
After spending years attempting to get Ecology to stop issuing deep basalt water rights because of impacts to stream flows it is ironic indeed that this rationale – that all eastern Washington water bodies are interconnected – is now being applied to grant harmful water transfers.  
 
 
Sunserra Resort/Crescent Bar Water Rights:
 
Ecology Creates Unsupportable Standard for Hydraulic Continuity
Sunserra.
Note golf course irrigation is underway, although water right transfers have not been approved.
(source: Sunserra Resort website)

WEB Links:

CELP comment letter

Sunserra Resort/Crescent Bar webpage 

Postema v. Pollution Control Hearings Board (Washington Supreme Court 2000)

Ecology’s Capture Report (1998)

Ecology’s Water Resources Policy No. 2010 (2007)http://www.celp.org/pdf/2007sunserracomment.pdfhttp://www.sunserra.com/index.htmhttp://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/caselaw/postemadec.htmhttp://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/98154.htmlhttp://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/rules/images/pdf/pol_2010.pdfshapeimage_4_link_0shapeimage_4_link_1shapeimage_4_link_2shapeimage_4_link_3shapeimage_4_link_4
Okanogan River
Okanogan, WA
Columbia River
Wenatchee, WA
(source:  Google Earth)