Ecology looking at Dungeness water exchange

Those wading into Washington state's water laws must be prepared for a tidal wave of information. A rule that will affect every water right awarded after its inception is forming.

The state Department of Ecology, which has jurisdiction over water resources and planning, has been creating an encompassing water resource plan and rule for different areas around the state, including the Sequim-Dungeness Valley.

It began by melding water studies specific to the area and state water law into an overall plan for water management in the area, which includes the Elwha River drainage. The document is titled the "Elwha-Dungeness Watershed Plan."

Ecology is creating rules to respond to recommendations in the plan and state law requirements.

The amount of water in the watershed is limited, especially during the late summer months when critical species including chinook salmon need adequate flow in the Dungeness River for spawning, according to Ecology planners.

Ecology is researching what flows are needed on a month-to-month basis and has hired the Washington Water Trust to do a feasibility study on banking water for use during low flow periods when some water right holders might be restricted from diverting water.

"We have hydrographs showing accurate flows in the river for years and we're finding the river needs its own water right, just as irrigators, cities and private wells have," said Cynthia Nelson, Ecology's watershed lead for the area. "So to improve a situation of limited water, to protect senior water rights and to enhance conservation, an 'instream rule' is being developed."

The rule will not affect senior water right holders, or those who had their water rights lined up before the rule's priority date, which is when the rule will be considered to have taken effect.

The rule will regulate water usage of those who hold water rights approved after the priority date. Regulations are not identified yet but some suggestions have been to require a high degree of conservation, encouraging public or community water systems over private wells and possible water usage monitoring.

Also, junior water right holders might have to stop taking water from the river or river-feeding aquifers during low flow periods. Nelson said the "closure" doesn't mean water would stop coming to homes built with new water rights established after the rule but rather that they would have to hook up to a community water system, participate in a water banking exchange or use a water reserve system.

The Washington Water Trust will report on its findings on the feasibility of a water banking exchange for the Sequim-Dungeness Valley later this year, possibly in October.

"Each watershed is so unique, with irrigators, senior water right holders, fish species and hydrological cycles that (Washington Water Trust) will need to go over a lot of material before making a report," Nelson said. "Essentially, in the exchange someone will put water into a bank, like irrigators for how much they have conserved by piping ditches, for later use or a developer can buy or deposit water for impacts a development may have on the aquifers and river."

Ecology will need to have many programs in place as an instream rule is put into effect, such as the water exchange program, an understanding of how reuse water in an aquifer impacts availability, an analysis of how much water is available, a list of new wells and development from recent years and a water users manual, which would tell people how to obtain water after the rule is set.

Once the rule and its specifics are established, likely in 2009, it will either have a priority date of 2000, which is what is identified in state law, or a priority date of when the rule is passed, which can happen if the Dungeness River Management Team unanimously approves the date shift.

Early estimates show approximately 1,200 wells have been drilled since 2000.

"While these rules have been contentious, it is set up through state law to happen and they will actually ensure that enough water is available for people, fish and farms," Nelson said.

Ecology will hold a large public forum when the trust is finished with its water exchange study. Until then, officials have offered to meet with organizations to make a presentation on the process. Those interested should call Barb Anderson at 360-407-0276.

For more information on the Washington state Department of Ecology's water management process and instream rule formation for the Sequim-Dungeness Valley, visit

For a compete draft of the Elwha-Dungeness Watershed Plan, visit

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