By Bruce Wishart, CELP Legislative Director
When the legislature adopted the state groundwater code in 1945, the landscape of Washington State was markedly different than it is today. At the time, there was so little development, even in urbanized areas, that it was felt that water drawn by wells for domestic use was so inconsequential that there was no need to permit the activity. Wells drawing less than 5,000 gallons a day were exempted from state water right permits. For many years, without permits, there was no real analysis of whether wells were having an impact on existing water rights and instream flows.
Flash forward 70 years and the picture had changed considerably. Considerable growth, even in rural areas, has led to water scarcity across the state, even on the damp Westside. New science and data on the “hydraulic continuity” between groundwater and surface water has demonstrated that we ignore exempt wells at our peril. Existing water right holders, whose wells are now threatened by the explosion of unpermitted wells, together with tribes and environmental groups led by CELP, are increasingly focused on this growing problem.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have highlighted the obligation of both local government and the state to properly manage unpermitted wells to avoid impacts on instream flows and existing water rights. These decisions, particularly Swinomish Indian Tribal Community vs. Washington Dep’t of Ecology (2013), have underscored the need for state and local authorities to provide proper management of water resources. The issue regularly comes before the legislature, as developers and others have attempted to erode these protections and return to the ‘hands off’ scheme of years past. On the positive side, however, several local jurisdictions are steadily working to put in place management programs designed to allow new development only when water impacts are properly mitigated.
In June, the Department of Ecology convened a Rural Water Supply Task Force in an attempt to reach consensus around these issues. The group met throughout the summer. CELP leaders along with tribal representatives engaged in the process, proposing balanced solutions while also calling attention to the real problem: water scarcity and the increasing problems associated with climate change.
Sadly, Ecology leaders kicked off the meetings by lamenting the loss of their ability to re-allocate instream flows to out-of-stream uses, an authority Ecology thought it possessed prior to the Swinomish decision. This, Ecology suggested, is the “problem” that the group needed to solve. They also indicated their belief that it is Ecology’s duty to guarantee domestic water supplies for all future users. User groups, for their part, attacked the decision and called for more regulatory flexibility and a new management scheme which would place a greater emphasis on economic rather than environmental needs.
Tribes and CELP leaders presented a different perspective, rejecting the call for more loopholes and exceptions. We continued to remind the group that water is a finite resource and we can no longer afford to put our collective heads in the sand. Appropriate, water-for-water mitigation is needed. We promoted programs in Kittitas and Dungeness Counties where local governments have struck a balance between careful water management and the desire to allow some growth.
Not surprisingly, this honest exchange of views did not result in a consensus around rural water supply policies. As of this writing, Ecology plans to prepare a final report summarizing the various ideas and perspectives presented by stakeholders. Most agree that it is very likely that, while this group failed to resolve the issue, the legislature will take it up again. Stay tuned.
Bruce Wishart of Wishart Public Affairs serves as CELP’s Legislative Director and represents CELP before the state legislature and the Department of Ecology.