State presents draft in-stream rule for the Dungeness River

Imagine the water level in the Dungeness River as the needle on your car's gas gauge.

What Washington's Department of Ecology planners want the public to consider is that needle falling to empty.

It would have dire consequences to human, animal and plant life.

With an ever-growing population on the North Olympic Peninsula, Ecology planners must not let the river run dry - they must make sure there is enough water for human demand and river needs.

So instead of stopping the car when the gas gauge hits empty, Ecology is setting a low-flow mark on the river so that it "closes" to new users when water drops below that point. The low-flow mark is scientifically identified as the amount of water short of what's necessary to support the river's aquatic life.

Early indications show the river, surrounding creeks and the aquifer will be "closed" from July 1 through Nov. 15, when the river is at a critical level.

"The rule speaks of quote, unquote 'closures,' but what you will see is a different process of obtaining water," said Ecology's Cynthia Nelson, indicating the rule only will have jurisdiction on water rights obtained after its adoption.

"It won't be like water will stop flowing from your tap. Instead, people looking for a new water right will have to go through a new process to make sure they are not impacting those low-flow water levels."

Nelson released a draft summary of the upcoming in-stream flow rule during the December meeting of the Dungeness River Management Team. The team is made up of individuals representing river stakeholders such as irrigators, farmers, conservation agencies, tribes and government.

The draft rule describes the new process as a way for newcomers to get water without impacting senior water right holders and river levels.

Nelson gave the example of a family moving to the Sequim area from Seattle who bought land with no water right. They will be able to get water even during times of river closure but will need to use a new water right acquisition process.

"They would likely have to go through the county who would check if they are in proximity to an existing water system, like the Clallam PUD, or possibly another class A provider," Nelson said.

"If not, they may opt to drill a well, in which case they would need to mitigate for the water they use during low-flow, or closure, periods."

Nelson referred to the Dungeness Watershed Plan, which provides recommendations for water management.

The plan states aquifers, wells and the river are interconnected. While the family would not be pulling water directly from the river, they would need to mitigate for their impact on its flows.

"We would not require a single family home to create a mitigation plan; it's quite onerous," Nelson said. "Which is why we are looking into a water exchange system to coordinate mitigation efforts in a transparent way."

Ecology hired the Washington Water Trust, a water law consulting firm, to research what type of exchange system would work in the Dungeness River basin.

"What you may see is a single-family home paying a mitigation fee to obtain water during closure periods but you may see larger agencies like the Clallam PUD putting together larger mitigation plans," said Amanda Cronin, water trust project manager.

"Both the single-family fees and the PUD mitigation effort would go toward replacing the water they plan on taking during periods of closure."

Cronin said she wasn't sure if the replacement ratio would be an equal one-to-one.

"Mitigation projects could include purchasing or leasing old water rights, organizing a reclaimed water program, doing an artificial aquifer recharge project or any other sort of water replacement effort," Cronin said. "But again, which programs the exchange will allow and the required proximity of the mitigation project to the actual use of water are still to be determined."

The single-family homeowner's fee would go into a mitigation project budget. Nelson indicated a one-time fee is likely.

River "closures" are just one of the many elements of the draft in-stream flow rule. The draft rule also states all new wells are likely to be metered, that wells will be restricted from being drilled at shallow depths and that water conservation is highly encouraged.

Ecology planners are putting finishing touches on the rule and plan on having an open house in late January where the public can discuss the rule, the watershed management plan and Washington water law.

Then, after some more editing, the rule will be submitted for approval and Ecology will hold a public hearing. Adoption is expected in the fall of 2009.

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