A Thurston County Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of the Squaxin Island Tribe in its years-long battle with the state Department of Ecology over well-drilling in the Johns Creek Basin northeast of Shelton.
In 2008 and 2009, the tribe petitioned the agency to halt new water withdrawals from the 10,500-acre watershed until the state completed studies to determine whether water is legally available to supply the wells.
A minimum stream flow set by the state for the creek in 1984 is not being met, threatening a small and fragile population of summer chum salmon native to the creek.
Ecology twice rejected the tribe’s rule-making request, claiming it didn’t have the staff or funding to conduct the necessary water-supply studies. The tribe then sued Ecology.
Never miss a local story.
“While we seek cooperation first in all of our natural resources management efforts, there are times when we must go to court to protect our culture and treaty rights,” tribal natural resources director Andy Whitener said.
In her recent three-page opinion, Judge Paula Casey sided with the tribe, calling Ecology’s denial of rule-making “arbitrary and capricious.”
“The record is undisputed that current requirements for in-stream flow levels in the Johns Creek Basin are not being met,” the judged concluded.
The opinion issued by the judge falls short of directing Ecology to take a specific action.
“No order has been issued yet,” said Ecology spokeswoman Kim Schmanke. “We don’t know if we’ll appeal or not; we’re still waiting to hear from our attorney on our options.”
“We’re elated that the court took a step to protect Johns Creek,” the tribe’s Whitener said. “But our mission will not be accomplished until state agencies take concrete actions to increase stream flow and benefit salmon.”
Since 1984, more than 200 wells exempt from state water rights, which are required for withdrawals of more than 5,000 gallons a day, have been drilled in the basin.
“Not only are minimum flows set in 1984 not being met, but every year since then the water shortage has gotten worse,” Whitener said. Tribal officials said there’s strong evidence that the creek is fed primarily by groundwater.
John Dodge: firstname.lastname@example.org