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Honoring Citizen Activists with the Ralph W. Johnson Water Hero Award

On June 7, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy will be honoring Sara Foster, Laura Leigh Brakke, David Stalheim, Eric Hirst and Wendy Harris with the Ralph W. Johnson Water Hero Award at Celebrate Water 2018. We will be recognizing these five individuals for their activism and involvement in the Hirst and Foster cases brought before the Washington State Supreme Court, which ultimately resulted in improved protections and management of our state’s rivers and streams.

These two cases resulted in triumphs for Washington’s rivers and streams. In 2015, the Foster decision confirmed that the Department of Ecology, which is responsible for managing the state’s waters, cannot issue new water rights that will permanently deplete protected flows in rivers and may not use non-water environmental restoration projects as a basis for issuing water rights. In 2016, the Hirst decision reaffirmed that new wells may not impair more senior water users, including instream flows. Our honorees this year started out as a concerned citizens and fought for better water resource management for all of Washington. These cases and their wins, though now effectively reversed due to a recent bill passed by the Washington State legislature, would not have been possible without the collective diligence and activism of Sara Foster, Laura Leigh Brakke, David Stalheim, Eric Hirst and Wendy Harris.

The Water Hero Award is given in honor of CELP’s founder, Professor Ralph W. Johnson, a law professor at University of Washington Law School who established the legal discipline of Indian Law and advanced legal understandings of protections for public waters. Past recipients of the award include Dr. John Osborn; University of Washington Law School Professor Bill Rodgers; Billy Frank Jr., on behalf of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; Swinomish Indian Tribal Community; and Upper Columbia United Tribes.

Join CELP as we honor these five courageous citizen activists!

  • Event: Celebrate Water, hosted by CELP
  • When: Thursday, June 7th, 5:30-8pm*
  • Where: Ivar’s Salmon House 401 NE Northlake Way, Seattle
  • Tickets: Purchase online or at the door

*CELP will also be offering a pre-reception CLE workshop from 4 to 5 pm.


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.


Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 33 — Lower Snake River

by Nick Manning

Water Resource Inventory Area (WRIA) 33 encompasses the Lower Snake Watershed, including a large portion of the Snake River and its numerous tributary creeks and streams. Originating in the mountains of Idaho and Wyoming, the Snake River runs through southeast Washington, meeting the Columbia River before flowing west into the ocean.  Of the watershed itself, 84% is privately owned, a majority of which is cropland. As a result, most—if not all—of the available water in the Lower Snake Watershed has already been spoken for, according to the Department of Ecology (Ecology) in its WRIA 33 report. Especially during summer months when demand is highest and flow levels are lowest, growing populations, declining groundwater levels, changing climate patterns, and existing excessive damming and pollution have reduced water availability to dangerous levels for local communities and the environment. As of this report, no instream flow rule or watershed plan exists to address this issue.

The Lower Snake Watershed has been designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as critical habitat for four threatened species of salmon. As recently as 1930, half a million salmon ran through the Snake River annually, but by 1990, only 78 made the full trip. In their recovery plan, NOAA reports that more than half of historic salmon habitat has been blocked by dams, with remaining spawning areas in wide river valleys often degraded by development, withdrawals of water, and erosion. Despite being listed as threatened for decades, most wild Snake River salmon and Steelhead returns remain at about the same levels as when they were first listed in the late 1990s. More importantly, the wild returns are still nowhere near NOAA recovery targets, which must be met for eight consecutive years. Federal courts have ruled repeatedly that salmon recovery is impossible without dam removal along the Lower Snake River, but no action has materialized.

Exacerbating the damage to salmon populations and water scarcity is the issue of pollution in the Lower Snake Watershed. In a study conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), it was reported that the Lower Snake waters are degraded enough as to be listed under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. This designation is reserved for waters that do not meet the standards of the Clean Water Act and requires Washington State to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) of discharge into the river. However, most of the land in the watershed is private cropland whose owners have senior irrigation water rights. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for Ecology to monitor all activity affecting the river. This irrigation, combined with grazing livestock and sedimentation from forest roads, causes unmitigated runoff and poses an ongoing threat to salmon populations and overall ecosystem health.

While water levels are declining, and water is not legally available, Ecology has not closed the watershed to new appropriations. However, Ecology has stated that new water appropriation is unlikely without full mitigation. Despite this, the watershed and salmon populations that rely on it are in danger. There is currently no minimum flow level established for the watershed, nor any state recovery plan. New water appropriations have mostly halted, but senior rights holders are still able to take water beyond recoverable levels, and several dams along the river are detrimental to threatened salmon runs. In watersheds like this one where multiple issues intersect, establishing instream flow rules is critical. Instream flow rules in the Lower Snake River Watershed could ensure sufficient water levels and habitat for salmon runs, make the stream more resilient to pollution, and help mitigate overuse from senior water rights holders. CELP urges the Department of Ecology to follow up on its responsibility to set instream flows for WRIA 33 to ensure quality and quantity of water for critical salmon populations and local communities.


Washington Water Watch: January 2018 Edition

In this issue, an article on the flawed “Hirst fix” recently passed by the WA State Legislature, an update on the Leavenworth Hatchery case, an in-depth article on the real impact of permit-exempt wells and the Hirst fix, the save the date for Winter Waters Event in March, and more.

Read the January 2018 issue of Washington Watch Watch here.


WA State Legislature Passes Flawed “Hirst Fix”

by Dan Von Seggern

Our state legislature began this year’s session by passing a bill to remove the 2016 Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board (“Hirst”) decision’s protections for groundwater and streamflows. Hirst reaffirmed existing law and required that counties ensure water is both physically and legally available before granting building permits.   This common-sense rule provided a critical check on withdrawals of groundwater that affect streams and rivers, and harm fish habitat.  Unrestricted groundwater withdrawals can impair the rights of senior water holders, including users of existing wells who are now seeing their wells go dry.  Worse yet, the bill takes a step towards reversing the Foster v. Ecology decision, which requires that impacts to streams be mitigated with replacement water, rather than with non-water (“out-of-kind”) habitat restoration projects.

Concerned that having to show that water was actually available could slow development in rural areas, counties, the building industry, and property rights groups pressured the Legislature to find a “fix.” On January 18, the Legislature passed a bill (ESSB 6091) that allows counties to approve building permits that rely on permit-exempt wells.

  • In WRIAs where Ecology has adopted an instream flow rule that specifically addresses permit-exempt wells (for example, WRIA 18, the Dungeness River), compliance with the applicable rule is sufficient to show water availability for a building permit.
  • Where Ecology has adopted a rule that does not speak to permit-exempt wells, a plan to restore and enhance streamflows is to be generated. In WRIAs that created watershed plans under the 1998 Watershed Act, the bill requires that these plans be updated to include projects to “measure, protect, and enhance streamflows,”   and to offset impacts of permit-exempt wells.
  • If no watershed plan was previously developed, the bill directs formation of “watershed restoration and enhancement committees” composed of stakeholders. These committees are heavily weighted towards stakeholders who have an interest in developing water, rather than preserving the resource, and CELP is concerned that they would not have adequate incentives to truly restore and enhance the streamflows.
  • In watersheds where Ecology has not yet adopted an instream flow rule, an applicant need only show that water is physically present (in other words, there is no requirement to mitigate or compensate for water use).   This is the situation in about half the state’s watersheds, including some that are experiencing high growth pressures such as the Cowlitz River (WRIA 26).

ESSB 6091 stresses a “watershed restoration and enhancement” approach, rather than requiring that water use from permit-exempt wells be mitigated.  While the goal of protecting and enhancing streamflow is a worthy one, this bill has significant flaws and will not provide adequate protection for streams, fish, or people who rely on them.  Development is essentially unrestricted in most areas until the new plans are completed (2019 – 2021).  The damage to streams will likely be done before any regulations are established.

ESSB 6091 also undermines mitigation of future water use by authorizing “out-of-kind” mitigation projects (such as streambank restoration or addition of large woody debris to a river channel; by definition, such projects do not provide replacement water) to compensate for new water uses, rather than requiring replacement water to maintain streamflows.  CELP believes that out-of-kind projects will become the path of least resistance in compensating for water use, and streamflows will inevitably be impaired.  Even the best habitat is of little use if there is insufficient water in the stream.

CELP is especially disappointed that ESSB 6091 lacks any metering provision, or any other method to determine how much water is actually used. Without metering, compliance with the limits in RCW 90.44.050 or with any limits set by the respective watershed committees cannot be verified, and there will be no way to know whether the impact of permit-exempt wells is actually being “offset.”   Because quantities cannot be verified, water use under this scheme is in practice unlimited.  Simply relying on users not to exceed allowable limits is poor policy and could make much of the watershed protections plans meaningless.

ESSB 6091 requires Ecology to conduct a pilot study of “the overall feasibility” of metering groundwater withdrawals (including permit-exempt wells) in the Dungeness (WRIA 18) and Kittitas county (WRIA 39) areas.  But no pilot project is needed.  Ecology’s rules in these areas already require that new permit-exempt wells be metered, and metering has already proven feasible. Rather than directing Ecology to waste time and resources on these studies, a better approach would be to require metering on all new permit-exempt wells, so that the data needed to ensure that streamflow impacts are compensated for can be gathered.

Finally, ESSB 6091 establishes a legislative “task force” with the mission of identifying changes in law to effectively overturn the Supreme Court’s 2015 Foster v. Ecology decision.  Foster held that water use that impairs an instream flow or other senior water right must be mitigated by providing substitute water at an appropriate place and time.  This provided important protections for salmon, which depend on water being present in streams at the time it is needed for migration, spawning, and rearing.  The bill authorizes a list of pilot projects that appear intended to demonstrate out-of-time, out-of -place, or out-of-kind mitigation.  CELP is concerned that this provision is designed to reach a preordained conclusion that out-of-kind mitigation is acceptable, and to pave the way for its broader use.  The consequences to Washington’s rivers and the fish that depend on them may be disastrous.


Washington Water Watch: November Edition

In this issue, an article on recent victory in court on the Leavenworth Hatchery Clean Water Act Case, a story on CELP’s founding director, Rachael Osborn, being recognized by AWRA-WA with their award for Outstanding Contribution to Water Resources, a welcome to CELP’s newest staff member, Emma Kilkelly, information about our December CLE, and more.

Read the November edition of Washington Water Watch here.


Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 29a – Wind River

by Elan Ebeling

WRIA 29a, known as the Wind watershed area, is located in southwestern Washington along the Columbia River, southwest of Mt. Adams. Although the Wind watershed was originally paired with the White Salmon watershed and collectively classified as WRIA 29, the initial planning unit disbanded due to disagreements in 2005. Subsequently, WRIA 29 was split into two separate sub-basin WRIAs, with WRIA 29a encompassing the western half including the Wind watershed and surrounding creeks and streams, and WRIA 29b containing the eastern White Salmon sub-basin area. The WRIA 29a Wind sub-basin includes the Wind and Little White Salmon Rivers, Trout, Panther, Brush, and Rock Creeks, as well as many small tributaries to the Columbia River. These waterways contain populations of Steelhead, Coho, Chum, Chinook, trout, and Pacific lamprey, five of which are listed under the ESA as endangered or threatened.

Although the area is relatively sparsely populated (the largest population centers are the cities of Stevenson and Carson at a combined population of under 4,000), according to the Department of Ecology’s 2012 Focus on Water Availability report WRIA 29 is among the most densely farmed basins in southwestern Washington. Furthermore, expected population increases particularly in the city of Stevenson combined with growing tourism from the burgeoning urban centers of Vancouver and Portland have put a strain on the region’s water resources.

In addition to the concerns of meeting water demands of a growing population, sufficient water is also needed to protect instream resources. The 2005 Watershed Management Plan for WRIA 29a identified high water temperatures on the Wind River and Little White Salmon River and high sediment deposits throughout the basin as specific impediments to threatened salmon runs. Climate models predict reduced snowpack throughout the region leading to lower summer flows and peak flows occurring earlier in the season, which will adversely affect vital fish habitat.

Although the 2005 plan acknowledged the necessity of an instream flow rule to safeguard threatened fish runs against the impacts climate change, it stated the need for more data to be collected on stream flow levels and recommended several studies and the placement of flow gauges. Over the next decade, sufficient data were accumulated via stream flow studies for the planning unit to recommend specific numbers for instream flow rulemaking on several waterways in the basin in the group’s 2015 Detailed Implementation Plan (DIP). In addition, the DIP also proposed the creation of several reservations to meet future water needs of local communities that would have priority over instream flow rules. Due to recent Washington State water case law, however (particularly the 2013 Swinomish v. Ecology decision), a different approach may be needed.  To protect instream flows, schemes for mitigation of new water use should be included in any new proposal.

The concerns of climate change and threatened fish runs are urgent, and conditions will only worsen without meaningful regulation. As a WRIA containing mid-Columbia River tributary rivers and streams, the Wind watershed is crucial for threatened Columbia River salmon and steelhead. CELP urges Ecology to take action to protect vital instream resources by beginning the rulemaking process for WRIA 29a.

If you are interested in helping to secure protections for the Wind watershed, please email CELP at contact@celp.org.


Washington Water Watch: June 2017 Edition

In this issue, find pictures of our recent Celebrate Water event, an update on the Spokane River rule, links to CELP’s Columbia River Treaty media and document library, and an opportunity to speak up for the Hanford Reach National Monument!

Read the June issue of Water Watch here.


Washington Water Watch: May 2017 Edition

In this issue, read about our upcoming Celebrate Water event and a bio of the Ralph Johnson awardee, John Osborn, meet our summer legal intern, learn about our latest victory on Icicle Creek, a recap on the Revelstoke, B.C. One River – Ethics Matter conference, and enjoy an update on the culvert case!

Read the May issue of Water Watch here.