Opinion

Risk and reward in the Dungeness watershed

 

An open letter to citizens of the Dungeness watershed:

First, I would like to thank the many residents of the Dungeness watershed who participated in the extensive public process involved in developing a Dungeness water management program. Since the end of the public comment period on the proposed instream flow rule, we have been working hard to respond to all written comments and to concerns voiced at public hearings. 

Instead of waiting for that process to conclude, I would like to address some “big picture” questions now, so you can see how the state Department of Ecology has been working to develop a water management program that is balanced, fair, reasonable and clear. 

What’s the real problem? The Dungeness watershed has many demands on its water. Much of this water is already legally “spoken for,” with some senior agricultural irrigation rights dating back more than 100 years. In the late summer and early fall, when water demands are highest, Dungeness streams experience chronic low flow problems. 

These depleted stream flows have contributed to the listing of four fish species in the Dungeness as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). That’s why we are working to protect and restore steam flows in the Dungeness basin. We now know that in much of the basin, groundwater is “connected” to surface water — meaning that as wells are drilled and used, that use can further deplete stream flows. 

To sustain future growth and development in the watershed, we need ways to allow new development without further harm to streams. And we need these solutions to be in place on day one after we adopt the new rule. 

What has Ecology done to make rule implementation work for citizens in the Dungeness watershed? About a year-and-a-half ago, we reached an Agreement in Principle with members of a diverse group of basin representatives. That agreement, which was supported by Clallam County, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and the Dungeness Water Users reflects a clear commitment to make the most of available water supplies in the Dungeness Basin. 

Because of the promises made in that agreement, I hit the “pause” button on our rule-making process 15 months ago. 

This “time out” has given Ecology and local leaders time to collaborate on actions to benefit both instream and out-of-stream interests. During this period of collaboration, we have applied to the Dungeness lessons learned about water solutions in the Skagit, the Kittitas and other watersheds. 
This new approach is working to serve the basin’s fundamental economic, environmental and community interests.

What will rule implementation mean for the citizens and the economy of the Dungeness watershed? Let me emphasize that the proposed rule will not prohibit future permit-exempt well use in the basin. 

The proposed rule is structured to allow for ongoing new uses of water without harming flows for fish. While some have suggested, inaccurately, that rule costs will exceed rule benefits, such conclusions are largely based on the flawed assumptions that new wells would be banned. 

In fact, the rule's water reserves (certain amounts of water set aside for domestic uses) will be available immediately, on the first day of rule implementation. Our draft economic analysis, which rightly reflects how the reserves in the proposed rule will function, indicates that benefits will far exceed costs due to increased certainty for new and existing development, protection for fish and investment in habitat enhancement. 

These water reserves will work in concert with the proposed Dungeness Water Exchange to support issuance of building permits for new domestic developments. The exchange will enable prospective water users to secure cost-effective mitigation that could otherwise be difficult or expensive to purchase individually. 

Once suitable mitigation water is secured and credited to a domestic use, that use will no longer be counted as a debit against the reserve’s water balance. 

This reserve replenishment mechanism will stretch the life and economic benefits of the reserves further. 

It will also prevent the problems currently experienced in the upper reaches of some Skagit sub-basins, by helping to make sure water is available when and where it is needed most. 

Even if the exchange is not yet up and running (we expect it will be) when the Dungeness rule becomes effective, the water reserves will still be available immediately to support issuance of building permits for homes. 

Thus, by combining the belt of the reserves with the suspenders of the water exchange, we ensure that no one will be stranded waiting for their residential building permit when the rule goes into effect. 

As part of this new approach, we have been working with the Clallam County commissioners to develop a Memorandum of Agreement to clearly delineate how we will work together to optimize water availability under the reserves and avoid disruption to proposed residential development. 

I also intend to include priority water supply projects, as recommended by the Dungeness Local Leaders Work Group, in Ecology’s 2013-2015 budget request. This “Dungeness Water Solutions” package will help make additional water supplies available and could defray some property owner costs related to securing mitigation. 

What’s at risk if we don’t adopt a water management rule? The potentially dire consequences of not having a rule were raised recently in a July 26 Sequim Gazette article. The article rightly recognizes that water is the lifeblood of the Dungeness community. 

What’s at risk in the Dungeness, without better water management, is nothing less than the quality of life that has been enjoyed by generations. 

Adequate stream flows for fish, reliable water allocations to support existing farms, businesses and communities, and water for new uses and future economic development — all of these interests are at risk. 

As Oregon’s Klamath basin has shown, water wars can generate tremendous economic, social and judicial costs. Continued water uncertainty in the Dungeness could lead to endangered species litigation, or to a “call on the river” to curtail junior uses by senior water right holders who believe their water rights are being impaired by new water uses. That in turn could lead to a building moratorium. 

Without a rule, a water exchange and water reserve mechanisms, we run the risk of stranding people without new water supplies and further depleting salmon runs. The rule’s potential to provide clarity and avoid future conflicts over water sends us well on our way to creating smart and effective water solutions that work for all interests in the Dungeness.
 
Please join me in moving these Dungeness solutions forward. 

For more about the proposed Dungeness rule, go to www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/instream-flows/dungeness.html For a compilation of public comments received on the rule, go to www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/instream-flows/wria18_pubcom.html.

Ted Sturdevant is the director of the Washington Department of Ecology. 

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