Water Scarcity & Climate Change: What we must do to prepare to protect rivers, drinking water aquifers

Public interest advocates are challenging efforts by the Washington Department of Ecology’s so-called “Rural Water Supply Strategy”  to overturn court victories by Tribes and conservationists.  The court decisions protect rivers and salmon, drinking water aquifers, and junior water right holders.  Ecology’s first in a series of meetings scheduled over three months was held on June 16.   Ecology’s strategy to overturn protective judicial rulings opens up the larger opportunity for a broader public conversation about water scarcity in Washington, and viable solutions to water scarcity.

(1)   We are facing a serious water crisis in Washington and climate problems will make it worse over time.  

In watersheds like the Yakima and the Dungeness, some water users are required to curtail their use when there’s not enough water to go around.    The Native American Tribes hold water rights for instream habitat to protect treaty fisheries.   Washington’s population growth over the last decades, and consequent increase in water usage, has put these iconic fisheries at risk.    Reduced snowpack and glacial melt means our natural water storage systems are in peril.   The amount of water available for human and environmental needs will dramatically worsen in the coming years.

(2)   We need to get smarter about water usage by requiring conservation, reuse, and metering of water among other strategies.

In watersheds with serious water supply problems, residential developers and others will need to purchase water rights from existing users as mitigation for the new development.   This is already occurring in the Skagit and Kittitas basins, where water banks allow new users to purchase existing rights.   Seattle leads the nation in its water conservation program.   Reclaimed water (treating and recycling wastewater for non-potable uses) is common throughout the Southwestern U.S.  and is a new tool we can use in Washington.  Win-win solutions can be had through better management of water resources.

(3)   Recent Washington Supreme Court decisions reinforce the need for careful water management in order to protect limited and declining water supplies.    

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of water resource protection in two important cases – decisions that Ecology is now working to overturn through its so-called “Rural Water Supply” Workgroup.   Last October, in the case of Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Department of Ecology, the Washington Supreme Court held that instream flows set by regulation are a form of water right, and Ecology cannot amend these rules to allocate more water out-of-stream.   Three years ago, in Kittitas County v. Growth Management Hearings Board, the Court ruled that local governments have obligations to protect water resources as part of their land use planning processes.   These decisions have the effect of limiting use of domestic wells in areas where water is scarce or over-allocated.

Local governments must adopt land use plans that include measures to protect groundwater resources.   The Department of Ecology has a duty to protect preserve and protect instream values – including water for fish and wildlife, water quality protection, navigation, and aesthetics – for future generations.   Government agencies must live up to their duties to protect Washington’s rivers and aquifers as required by statutes and the courts.