Cities near deal for water rights The cities of Olympia, Lacey and Yelm are close to securing water rights they need from the state Department of Ecology to expand and reshape their water supplies.
Ecology officials have said they expect to issue draft decisions on the water requests in May and mid-June, a major milestone in a more than 15-year effort by the cities to secure permission to drill major new wells.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re at an important place in the process,” said Rich Hoey, interim public works director for the City of Olympia.
To help their cause, the three city councils this week agreed to buy a 197-acre farm and water rights on the Deschutes River south of Yelm, near Lake Lawrence as part of a mitigation plan to help offset the effects some new city wells will have on Deschutes stream flows.
The sheep farm purchased by the cities includes 1.1 miles of riverfront property that is low-lying pasture. It will be the scene of a major habitat restoration project to improve river water quality. Ceasing the farm operation on the property will free up water for improved stream flows and reduce the release of fine sediments and nutrients in the upper watershed, Hoey said.
“It should provide an immediate and significant benefit to water quality in the Deschutes Basin,” he said.
The more than $1.2 million deal – shared equally by the three cities – is a key piece of a mitigation plan submitted to Ecology for the Deschutes and Nisqually rivers, Woodland Creek, McAllister Creek and nearby lakes.
The plan is necessary because the groundwater withdrawals are in areas where the surface waters don’t always meet minimum stream flows set by law to protect fish and water quality.
Before the cities could get their water rights, they needed to convince Ecology that their plan to take more groundwater wouldn’t cause more damage to the surface waters.
“Everything we’ve seen so far looks good,” said Tom Loranger, water resources section manager for Ecology’s southwest region. “We see no fatal flaws.”
However, the Squaxin Island Tribe has repeatedly objected to additional water withdrawals from the Deschutes River Basin, claiming Ecology doesn’t have the legal authority to use mitigation plans to approve the water rights requested by the cities in river basins already over-appropriated.
The cities are in continued discussions with the tribe on strategies to enhance the Deschutes River Basin, according to city officials.
Draft decisions favorable to the cities are likely to be released by Ecology in early May and mid-June, Loranger said. They will be followed by a 30-day comment period, a final decision and a 30-day appeal period.
Here’s how the city officials describe their need for and use of the water rights:
• Olympia wants to transfer water rights for 26 million gallons a day from McAllister and Abbott springs to a nearby well field it would develop with the Nisqually Indian Tribe.
By moving a surface water supply to a groundwater supply, the city could avoid spending $8 million next year on a water treatment system required for surface water supplies, Hoey said.
In addition, McAllister Springs, which supplies the bulk of the city’s water, is more vulnerable to contamination and sea-level rise than the new supply would be.
• Lacey has been trying since the mid-1990s to secure water rights to drill six municipal wells critical to meet the needs of the rapidly growing city. It would add 7,500 acre-feet of water yearly to the city water supply.
The city has had to micromanage its water supply to avoid a building moratorium. Measures include an aggressive water conservation and leak detection and repair program, water purchases from Olympia, and a requirement that developers in the city’s urban growth area come to the table with their own water rights, said Peter Brooks, Lacey water resources manager.
“We’ve been right on the edge of a building moratorium,” Brooks said.
• Yelm, another high-growth community, seeks permits to expand its water supply by 942 acre-feet, city administrator Shelly Badger said.
“We’ve been relying on the transfer of water rights to meet the growth in the city,” Badger said. “We’re on the ragged edge of a moratorium.”
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org