This is the first in a series of blog posts examining unprotected watersheds in Washington State.
Background on Instream Flow Rules in Washington State
In 1998, the Washington State Legislature passed the Watershed Management Act, which provides a framework for local governments, affected Indian Tribes, citizens and stakeholders to develop plans to manage the water resources within their watershed. There are 62 watersheds or Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIAs, pronounced “Why-rahs”) within Washington State.
In addition to the mandatory issue of water quantity, planning groups may choose three optional components to include in their plans: making instream flow recommendations that the Department of Ecology can use to establish instream flows by rule, water quality, and fish habitat. While some of the 62 watersheds have recently adopted instream flow rules (like the Dungeness Rule which was adopted in 2013, and which CELP successfully helped to defend in court in 2016), far more have instream flow rules that are decades old or no instream flow rule at all.
Instream flow rules act as a “water right for the river,” and function the same way as any other legal water right, protecting instream resources from future water withdrawals. These rules are important for ensuring that there is enough water in rivers and streams to provide for clean water, fish habitat, recreation, and aesthetics, and are especially important given the threat of climate change and the state’s historic drought of 2015.
WRIA 19: The Lyre-Hoko
WRIA 19, designated as the Lyre-Hoko watershed, is located in Clallam County in the northwestern most part of the Olympia Peninsula, spanning from the tip of Cape Flattery to just west of the Elwha River basin. WRIA 19 encompasses the major waterways of the Lyre, Seiku, Hoko, Clallam, Pysht, East and West Twin Rivers, and Salt and Deep Creeks, which drain directly into the Strait of Juan de Fuca along with many other smaller streams.
CELP has identified WRIA 19 as a critical watershed in Washington State. The Olympic Peninsula was one of the first three regions where Governor Inslee declared drought conditions in 2015 (the Lyre-Hoko watershed was named specifically along with the Quilcene-Snow, Elwha-Dungeness, Sol Duc-Hoh, and Queets-Quinault). WRIA 19 is also an important watershed for salmon – it encompasses 27 separate salmon-bearing rivers and streams that support Chinook, chum, and coho. Although the watersheds in the Lyre-Hoko area don’t support salmon runs listed under the Endangered Species Act, the nearshore areas of WRIA 19 serve as an important migratory corridor for salmon populations (including those listed under the ESA) leaving or entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca. According to a 2015 Salmonoid Restoration Plan for WRIA 19 published by the North Olympia Peninsula Lead Entity for Salmon, however, many of the salmon populations in individual basins are considered depressed or critical, and are projected to decline.
Despite its obvious need for protection, WRIA 19 does not have an instream flow rule. Clallam County formed an official planning unit under the Watershed Management Act and initially unanimously agreed on instream flow recommendations in 2005, but disagreement over the specific numbers ultimately killed the plan in 2010 (here’s a link to the planning unit’s 2009 draft plan). While the Makah and Lower Elwha Clallam tribes supported the proposed instream flow numbers in the interest of fish habitat and adequate stream flows, the Clallam County PUD opposed them as being too high to allow for continued development and human consumption, (the timber industry also firmly opposed parts of the plan relating to riparian buffers). With the groups at an impasse, the planning process unraveled, and no plan was approved.
If a local planning unit fails to agree on a plan, the responsibility for instream flow rulemaking falls back to the Department of Ecology. Although it is unclear whether Ecology has an obligation to enact an instream flow rule in this circumstance, the fact remains that there is ample evidence that a rule needs to be put in place. In its own 2011 report on water availability in the Lyre-Hoko watershed, the Department of Ecology stated that the Department of Fish and Wildlife had recommended against issuing new water rights in sections of WRIA 19 “in order to protect fish populations.” Despite the fact that much of the requisite research and work was done in the nearly decade long local planning process, there remains no instream flow rule in place for the Lyre-Hoko watershed six years later.
Ecology has provided protection for many watersheds around the state – for example, CELP worked with the Department of Ecology to successfully defend the agency’s instream flow rule for the Dungeness River in 2016. However, CELP urges Ecology to take timely action in critical watersheds like the Lyre-Hoko in order to ensure healthy flows, abundant water for future generations, and plentiful habitat for fish.
If you are interested in helping to secure protections for the Lyre-Hoko Watershed, email CELP at firstname.lastname@example.org.