Local

Facing their own issues over water rights, Skagit agencies vow to work together

The state Department of Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Skagit River basin, established in 2001 and reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court in 2013, interrupts water rights established after 2001 if the river level falls below a certain point.
The state Department of Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Skagit River basin, established in 2001 and reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court in 2013, interrupts water rights established after 2001 if the river level falls below a certain point. The Bellingham Herald file

Commissioners from the Skagit Public Utility District and Skagit County met this week to talk about potential solutions to water availability.

And while this was the first ever meeting between the two groups, both said they are committed to starting a larger conversation about water.

“This meeting is a kickoff to a much more collaborative, cooperative effort,” said PUD Commissioner Robbie Robertson.

Dan Haller of Aspect Consulting, who is working with the PUD, presented the history of the state’s water code and potential solutions to expand the legal availability of water.

The state Department of Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Skagit River basin, established in 2001 and reaffirmed by the state Supreme Court in 2013, interrupts water rights established after 2001 if the river level falls below a certain point.

Because the county requires an uninterruptible water supply to grant a building permit, even the chance that a water right will be interrupted due to instream flow excludes wells from being used to get a permit.

Haller reviewed the legislation and court decisions that led to where the county is today – about 9,000 parcels of land unable to use a well as an uninterruptible water supply. That number includes 480 existing homes.

There are several mitigation strategies, he said, that could help property owners on a case-by-case basis, such as rain catchment systems or the trucking of water.

“There are some parcels out there that could build today (with mitigation),” he said.

But the commissioners from the county and the PUD also hope to consider larger ideas, such as establishing a water bank or forming a county water conservation board. Both would help with transfers of senior water rights to those looking to build.

County Commissioner Ron Wesen said any solution is going to require several agencies working together, and that this week’s joint meeting was a step in the right direction.

“We have to work together locally,” he said.

Robertson said he was optimistic about regular joint meetings on water.

“These are the kinds of things that could move us forward,” he said.

The two boards will get together again in a few months, when Haller and staff from the PUD and county will have more information on which mitigation methods would work.

“That would be a great milestone for 2018,” he said.

Haller also referenced a determination from Ecology that wells in a 56-square-mile area of western Skagit County do not harm the Skagit River, and thus are exempt from instream flow restrictions.

He said Ecology is working to determine if this is true in other parts of the county.

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