Nearly four years after a state Supreme Court decision affected water rights in rural Skagit County, some farmers and many property owners remain without a reliable source of water.
In an effort to address the issue, the state Department of Ecology is considering a variety of options to improve access to water throughout Skagit County, including piping water, trucking water or storing water.
Ecology is responsible for ensuring there is enough water in the Skagit River for fish, as required under the Skagit River instream flow rule. The rule states that when the Skagit River’s flow drops to a certain level, the state can deny access to water in an effort to protect fish.
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community sued Ecology over 2006 amendments to the Skagit River instream flow rule, arguing the state had allowed too much rural water use, leaving not enough water available for fish.
The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe in October 2013, leaving some homes, businesses and undeveloped properties without reliable access to water.
Ecology recently restored water rights for 22 homes in the Bay View area where the state agency determined wells do not affect the river. Ecology also plans to provide mitigation options for several properties near Big Lake this year. Those properties will no longer lose access to water based on river level.
Unable to build
Still, many property owners throughout the county remain without reliable access to water and some are unable to build on their land.
“I can put a toilet in, but I have no water to flush it,” said Dale Klein, who owns three parcels that are about 10 acres each east of Sedro-Woolley.
Klein and his wife Marlene live in a home they built on one of their parcels. They have a well they can’t legally draw from if the Skagit River dips below the threshold set in the instream flow rule.
Klein also can’t build on his other two parcels.
“My other two 10 acres, which was an investment for whether I need it for medical reasons or whatever the purpose so I can be self-reliant, has pretty well been stripped,” he said.
Zachary Barborinas, a commissioner for Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Improvement District 15, said many farmers in the 10,000-acre district west of Mount Vernon also remain without a reliable source of water.
Farmers in the district typically only need water from the Skagit River during the summer months, when drainage systems go dry, he said. But if the river is not at the minimum level set in the instream flow rule, the drainage district can’t pump water to the farms that need it.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Barborinas said.
In Clallam County on the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula, a partnership of government, tribal, nonprofit and farmer representatives affected by an instream flow rule have come up with a plan for addressing their water needs.
The partnership proposes building an 88-acre reservoir on 320 acres of property adjacent to the Dungeness River.
Water from the river would be put into the reservoir during winter high flows and pumped to farmers as needed from mid-August to mid-September when river flow declines.
State and local water resource managers said that type of single, large-scale project wouldn’t likely work in Skagit County, where the terrain and lack of cooperation between groups would prove challenging.
Ecology is focusing on a variety of options of a smaller scale for Skagit County water users.
The agency released a study in December detailing how trucking, piping or capturing excess stream water might work for areas where property owners are unable to build wells without mitigating their water use.
Each of those options would involve storing water in tanks or ponds. That water would be released into the watershed to make up for water drawn from wells during the times of low flows on the Skagit River, according to the report.
Ecology plans this year to launch a Big Lake Water Bank that will make water available to some properties downstream of the lake, said Ecology interim Regional Director Tom Buroker.
The water bank would allow property owners to purchase mitigation credits that will make existing wells affected by the 2013 court decision a reliable source of water again, as well as allow for some new development in the area, Buroker said.
That’s another concept that has been used in the Dungeness River watershed. There, Ecology and the Washington Water Trust purchased water from a utility to offset the construction of new residential wells as required under the Dungeness River instream flow rule.
To make up for water drawn from new wells, an equivalent amount of water is released to recharge the area’s groundwater resources, the water trust’s Jason Hatch said.
Property owners pay a one-time fee based on how much water they plan to use, and that enables them to get building permits, according to Ecology.
In the Skagit River watershed, Ecology is also evaluating how piping water from an existing water supplier into holding tanks in the Carpenter-Fisher sub-basin could mitigate the effects of residential wells in the area, Buroker said.
The Carpenter-Fisher sub-basin south of Mount Vernon was the first part of Skagit County where new construction was halted as a result of the court decision. If built, water from the storage tanks would be released into Carpenter and Fisher creeks as needed to offset the groundwater drawn from area wells.
The idea is that building pipes to a handful of water tanks would be less expensive than connecting each rural property to the existing water utility system, according to the Ecology study.
If the pipe system is built, it could also be extended to other areas, such as the Nookachamps Creek sub-basin, according to the report. That was the second part of the county where new construction was stopped due to a lack of reliable access to water.
The other options explored in the Ecology report – trucking water to storage tanks and building water storage ponds to serve small groups of properties – are still on the table for other parts of the county.
“If individuals or small neighborhoods want to explore options for storage or trucking or other things, we would happily provide technical assistance to them, but those are not options we are exploring at this time because we want to focus on the most benefit to the most people,” Buroker said.
A matter of geography
Small-scale projects are better suited to addressing water access issues in Skagit County than a large project such as the one proposed in Clallam County.
The Skagit River is geographically different from the Dungeness River.
“Skagit is a much bigger river, it’s a huge watershed,” Buroker said.
He said those in need of water here are also scattered throughout the area, rather than concentrated near the mouth of the river the way many farms are in the Dungeness watershed.
The Skagit Public Utility District’s Judy Reservoir southeast of Sedro-Woolley is a 142-acre reservoir that serves three cities and surrounding areas in Skagit County. Building another reservoir to supply rural properties, particularly those upriver, would be difficult.
“I think it would be a pretty challenging issue to tackle. You’d have to find a right location that would serve a lot of people, and you’re talking about a very large reservoir,” Skagit PUD General Manager George Sidhu said.
Joe Mentor, an attorney specializing in water issues, said reservoirs used to mitigate water use would only work for properties downstream from the reservoir, and there’s no single location that could address all of the county’s rural water needs.
“Because there is development within various tributary watersheds in the Skagit River basin, one large-scale project would not be sufficient to accommodate all rural water needs in Skagit County,” he said. “You’d have to have a smaller one in every watershed where there is development.”
Barborinas said the large-scale reservoir concept is not a likely solution for local agriculture, either.
“That is based on using pipes to get water to farms, which wouldn’t be cost effective here,” he said. “These farms only need water part of the year to supplement groundwater irrigation and it would be difficult to select locations for pipes since crops rotate year to year.”
Need for cooperation
Another challenge is bringing together diverse groups in Skagit County to address water rights issues.
“We don’t have these broad coalitions of relationships in Skagit that we do in the Dungeness,” Buroker said. “There has been a lot of litigation and not a lot of cooperation in the Skagit.”
While government, tribes and private interests collaborated to address water concerns in the Dungeness watershed, those groups have found themselves battling over water rights issues here for years.
That lawsuit between Ecology and the Swinomish tribe that led to the 2013 state Supreme Court decision left about 475 homes and eight businesses without a reliable water supply, according to Ecology.
Skagit County estimates owners of another 5,700 parcels in the county have been unable to build on their property due to the ruling.
Mentor, who has worked on potential mitigation projects in Skagit County, said he has seen the distrust some property owners have of area tribes when it comes to water access.
“We have succeeded in putting together mitigation programs in other places like we tried to do in Skagit County,” Mentor said. “There are solutions out there, there is just too much polemic on both sides of it to really look at the problem rationally.”
Buroker said he hopes the Dungeness project is seen as an example of how partnerships can be successful.
“They have been working on water problems there longer than in the Skagit. That’s one advantage that they have. They have got a group of entities that are working cooperatively to meet all of their different needs,” he said. “In the Skagit, to have success we need all partners to come together and work together on solutions.”
As studies, the search for funding and the struggle for cooperation continue, many remain without answers to their water woes.
Board of Skagit County Commissioners Chair Ron Wesen said local officials never expected rural Skagit County to remain high and dry this long.
“When we met with Ecology in October 2014, they said they would come up with a plan in 18 months, and we’re still waiting,” Wesen said. “Part of the problem is that they have to get consensus from all the people involved, and they haven’t been able to get consensus.”