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Is Ecology overstepping?
by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
For the past two months the Washington Department of Ecology has been asking for comments on the new Dungeness Water Management Rule that’s scheduled to be proposed in March.
On Feb. 15 that effort included a face-to-face with area Realtors.
Ecology officials Tom Loranger and Ann Wessel provided a quick overview of the rule, then answered as best they could the questions posed by the largely skeptical audience of more than 60 real estate professionals.
Among its more important provisions, the new rule would establish “optimal” flow levels for the Dungeness River, its tributaries and eight independent streams feeding directly to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
When water levels fall below this established “instream flow,” additional regulatory requirements would be triggered for those hoping to drill wells in the affected area, including new home builders.
Many of the Realtors left the meeting unsatisfied, and continue to believe it will make development within the county much more difficult, if not impossible.
Following the meeting, Heidi Hansen, president of the Sequim Real Estate Association, said many of the association’s members believe the rule is simply “going to happen.” They’re resigned to working with it, she said.
Others, Hansen said, are a little more proactive. “Some people find aspects of it unconscionable,” she said.
Hansen is among that number.
She noted that many within Ecology, including Wessel, the Instream Flow Rule lead, repeatedly have called water management within the Dungeness Valley a “success story.”
“Then what’s the impetus to control it?” Hansen asked.
“We have a limited number of lots” within the affected area, she said. “Why can’t we simply negotiate (the needed water rights) into the reserves?”
She noted that a nonprofit company will be brought in to run the water exchange called for in the rules.
“It’s a nonprofit, but we’re going to pay their staffers, their costs. We’re creating their own little industry.”
Hansen also described the circumstance of a friend, a fellow Realtor who recently sold a portion of her land to her son.
“There’s a well there,” Hansen said. “In today’s world that means there’s water. Under a new rule there’s a possibility of paying for mitigation — and there’s a possibility of not having water.”
“All of this is being done for the sake of keeping the river high for fish,” Hansen said. “But none of it sounds like it’s putting water back into the river.”
Realtor Tom Wilkinson echoed Hansen’s complaint, saying, “This is to bring the fish back. But there is no limit to the fish the tribe can take out. And they have a water right that is unquantifiable.”
Wilkinson said the plan lacks logic and is unlikely to maintain the level of flow in the Dungeness River. He noted that the plan would allow those with water rights along one side channel to sell those rights to someone living along another channel. “I’m calling that into question,” he said.
Wilkinson also said it’s possible much of the rule could be made moot through a one-time purchase of the necessary water rights, a job he suggested might be appropriate for the Clallam County PUD.
Under any circumstance, he said, “It’s unconscionable for them to put this rule in without having all the ‘what-ifs’ defined.”
Developer Greg McCarry agreed, saying that if a “total build-out” of the affected area would only pull four cubic feet per second (CFS) in water from the river, perhaps the state could purchase the water right via a bond issue, then pay the bonds with fees on new construction. That, he said, would reduce considerably the paperwork and the oversight.
“The county is looking at monitoring the water used inside as opposed to outside the house. It boggles the mind,” he said. “And with the Indians having their independent right to the fish, the state can’t control half the problem.”
McCarry said under the new rule, “All water in the Clallam County service area is going to be commoditized. Everything will be based on the value of the water.”
He added that, “Whatever they do to monitor these wells — that’s not going to change what flows in the river. I predict a lot of litigation.”
Karen Pritchart was even more blunt. “Frankly, I think it’s a ruse to control development. I think it’s a mechanism by which the tribes are going to make money. I think there are a lot of questions about the science — which is over 20 years old. (Ecology official) Brad Caldwell stipulated that all of the people who were on the committee who did the study also did the peer review. You need to have an outside peer review group to see the mistakes.
“I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s based on true science,” Pritchard said. “If they were really interested in the fish, they would ban fishing. They did that 25 years ago with sea bass.
“I think the unintended consequences are going to be major. The PUD is going to have to shut down the water, and the City of Sequim will have to reduce the amount of water they can give us.”
Pritchard’s husband, Tom Williamson, who also is a Realtor, said he was struck by the introduction at the meeting of “two very, very significant factors. No. 1: If the $1.6 million (to purchase the water rights) came from anybody, then the problem goes away.”
“We wouldn’t have added a single drop of water,” Williamson said. “All we’ve done is transferred money from one group to another. It’s not about water, it’s not about fish. It’s about money.”
Williamson noted that Ecology’s Wessel said the tribes have water rights “that are not yet identified. How do they propose to have any source of rational discussion if they don’t even know the extent of the resources to be divided?” he asked.
“It’s all about transferring wealth to one of the tribes,” Williamson said. “I think this goes way back — something between (Gov.) Gregoire and the tribes of the state — a means of transferring money to them for supporting her agenda. No proof, but if you look at the facts, there’s no other conclusion.”
How much water?
Realtor Marguerite Glover, who has participated in discussions of the rule for several years, called into question Ecology’s data regarding the “over-appropriation” of water rights — Ecology’s working assumption that more water rights have been issued for the Dungeness Valley than there is water.
“Many water rights, some of them very large, are no longer used,” she said. “And they can’t be used again. They were ‘relinquished’ for lack of use for five years or more.
“Has Ecology made an accounting of all of these lost rights? It seems that they should. Otherwise, how can they continue to state that the Dungeness is ‘over-appropriated,’ or ‘over-allocated?’”
Glover also noted that valley irrigators now voluntarily withdraw “far less water than they were originally entitled to. Originally, they took as much as 80 percent of the flow of the river. Now they have agreed to take no more than half of the flow of the river.”
“These days, with drip irrigation, the average family with a garden doesn’t waste vast quantities of water,” Glover said. “People now know to water early in the morning or late in the evening. So much is already being done by the Clallam Conservation District, the PUD and the irrigators to educate people on the wise use of water.
“This rule, in its current form, goes beyond what is necessary to provide enough water in the river for fish.”
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.