Dozens of Sequim Valley residents lined up last week to tell state planners they are not trusted, their science is lacking and a pending water management rule will do nothing but cause problems for the citizens in the area.
The state Legislature directed the Department of Ecology to create a rule to inventory and manage the state's water supplies in each watershed to ensure enough water is available for existing water rights, the area's streams and rivers and for new water appropriations in years to come.
Most of the public comment was negative during Ecology's Feb. 18 workshop on the Dungeness watershed and its slated rule.
While the crowd was a mixed group, most of those who spoke against the rule were longtime residents of the area and local real estate professionals.
Their fears included higher housing prices, a rule based on questionable science and state-level bureaucratic management of a rural county's water supply.
The in-stream rule will give the Dungeness a water right and will put additional regulations on water rights allocated thereafter. The rule is expected to take effect by the end of the year, possibly by November.
Ecology responded that managing water is its duty, the Legislature mandated the process, evidence to support the rule has been aired in open meetings for the past two years and that science provides a sound foundation for the rule.
"Streams in the watershed have chronically low flows, much of the water is already legally spoken for and it's our intent to make sure senior water rights are protected while providing a mechanism to create new water rights in the area," said Ecology's Cynthia Nelson.
She said Sequim is the driest place in the state west of the Cascades.
"Plus, only new water right applicants are affected. Everyone who is receiving water now will have nothing to do with this rule."
Ecology, the agency in charge of distributing water rights, has deemed the Dungeness basin overallocated for years.
It has gathered hydrological - water movement - data in the basin dating back decades and has worked with the local community, tribes, conservation groups and government agencies to create the foundation for the rule.
In some areas, such as near Carlsborg, no new water rights have been awarded for more than a decade because of overallocation.
The rule will cause "closures" of the Dungeness River and its tributaries from July 15 to Nov. 15 and on all other independent streams, such as Cassalery, Siebert and McDonald, from April 15 to Nov. 15.
The difference in closure dates is based on the Dungeness being supplied by snow melt and the other creeks being supplied by rain, a much more temporary and intermittent source from April to July.
The closures are not literal.
New water users will be able to use water during those months but will need to pay a one-time mitigation fee.
Karen Pritchard, a real estate agent for 18 years in Sequim, said the rule will create a greater divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
"This mitigation fee is putting into place something that separates an already economically divided community," she said.
Ecology planners said an economic impact study is in the works and will be available soon, adding that the cost of mitigation has not yet been determined.
Water used by new permit holders during nonclosure periods comes from a reserve established by Ecology after reviewing the amount of water available in the basin.
The reserves are estimated to last upward of 50 years.
"For the user, there will be a seamless transition between summer and winter usage. They will simply have water," said ecology's Sarah Ferguson, who is writing the rule.
"Things like closures and mitigations are done behind the scenes in order to make sure there is enough water for people, farms and fish."
Bruce Emery said he did not believe there is enough quantifiable evidence supporting a connection between wells and the water levels fish need in the river.
"I also see conflicts between well laws and the law that provides for the creation of the in-stream rule," he said.
The crowd grumbled at the announcement that those who own land with a well that hasn't been used will need to go through the new rule process to obtain a right to use that well.
"While exempt from the permitting process, these withdrawals are still subject to all other state water laws," Ferguson said, indicating the rule protects senior water rights and an unused well does not qualify as a "beneficial use" granting it a water right.
"Authority for restricting ground water uses, which includes permit-exempt well use, comes from state statutes and court decisions."
The draft rule is not completed. Ecology will accept public comments and suggestions up to the completion of the rule's first draft and then through the official 180-day public comment period after a final draft is proposed.
A first draft is likely to be released in March on Ecology's Dungeness-dedicated Web site, http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/instream-flows/dungeness.html.
The site lists the information, meetings and plans that are being incorporated into the rule.
Ferguson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nelson can be contacted at email@example.com.
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