Quietly and efficiently, leaders make strides on water rights

THE OLYMPIANOctober 13, 2011 

Issues such as Lacey’s squabble with its fire district, Olympia’s quest to build high-rises on the waterfront and Tumwater’s struggle to turn the abandoned brewery property into something magnificent grab the headlines. But it’s often the behind-the-scenes work by elected officials and their staff members that can be game changers. Too often that daily work goes on in the bowels of city halls and is unnoticed and underappreciated.

So it is with the herculean effort by Olympia, Lacey and Yelm to gain additional water rights from the state Department of Ecology.

Groundwater is a finite resource. Yes, situated at the base of Puget Sound where we’re sometimes subjected to torrential rainstorms it seems as if we have an overabundance of water. But the truth is, the aquifers that are constantly recharged by rain and melting snow are both limited and essential to sustain life in Puget Sound. Ecology officials have a societal obligation to ensure that there are sufficient water resources for this and future generations.

That’s why municipal governments and developers can’t just drill wells willy-nilly and tap into the aquifer without permission from Ecology.

Recognizing the importance of the decisions and the lack of solid scientific information, the Department of Ecology has moved at glacial pace on water right applications. Lacey, for example, has seen its water right applications languish on Ecology desks for 15 years or more.

Some years ago, it was recognized that municipal and tribal governments needed to do a better job of joint planning and mapping of water resources. It’s a regional approach to groundwater management versus individual decisions.

To their credit, Olympia, Lacey and Yelm have collaborated to do a better job of assessing resources in the Nisqually and Deschutes river basins. They’ve been willing to share or trade resources in exchange for Ecology’s permission for increased capacity.

Right now the three cities are waiting for final Department of Ecology permission to expand their water supplies. It’s a pivotal decision because it will impact the ability for South Sound to grow. Without additional water resources the community was on a path toward building moratoriums which would have led to stagnation and economic ruin.

The cities have convinced Ecology they can pump thousands of acre-feet of water from the groundwater in the two watersheds without damaging stream flows and fish. They point to the collaborative mitigation plan they have put together that includes:

 • Buying a 197-acre farm on the Deschutes River south of Yelm where existing water rights will be retired and a major habitat-restoration project will be implemented to improve stream flows and water quality.

 • Using highly treated reclaimed water from the LOTT Clean Water Alliance to boost the water budget in the Woodland Creek and Hawks Prairie areas.

 • Conducting other habitat-restoration projects in the Woodland Creek and Nisqually basins.

Ecology’s draft recommenda-tion, which could be final by year’s end if there are no appeals, grants Lacey just two of the six water rights it has requested, totaling about 1,666 acre-feet of the 7,500 acre-feet of water the city sought. It takes about 500 acre-feet of water to serve 1,500 water customers.

Two other water rights are likely to be approved once the city and Ecology agree on a monitoring plan for early detection of potential saltwater intrusion because of their proximity of the proposed wells to the Puget Sound shoreline. The final two water rights also are on schedule to be approved.

In Olympia’s case, the new water right allows the city to move from McAllister and Abbott springs to a wellfield less prone to pollution. It also allows the city to avoid spending about $8 million next year on a water-treatment system required by the state to keep using the springs, which are a surface water supply subjected to stricter operation rules than a groundwater supply.

The Nisqually Tribe also will benefit from the new Olympia wells, allowing the tribe to eventually decommission shallow wells vulnerable to pollution.

For Yelm, the new water right allows the city to expand its water supply by 942 acre-feet and avoid a building moratorium.

The joint planning and mitigation plan decisions that have taken place quietly in government offices have gone largely unnoticed by the public. But those decisions are critically important to the economic vitality and future growth of south Puget Sound.

We owe our public servants a debt of gratitude for their quiet, but effective, diligence on our behalf.

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