Is it really true that the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Yelm are on the verge of securing rights for additional water resources from the state Department of Ecology?
It seems almost too good to believe.
Water – its availability and its influence on future growth – has been a huge issue in South Sound for nearly two decades. The city of Lacey has spent the last 15-plus years seeking permission from state regulators to extract additional water resources by drilling new wells.
It’s been one delay after another from the state Department of Ecology. Lacey had to put a moratorium on new development in its urban growth boundary in 2005 because of limited water supplies. Lacey officials wanted to ensure they had sufficient water to provide city residents before extending water lines beyond the city limits.
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We will say, however, that those delays from Ecology were beneficial in that they forced Lacey to work with its neighboring jurisdictions to formulate a comprehensive plan to tap additional water resources.
Ecology officials forced Lacey, Olympia and Yelm to consider the entire watershed – the Deschutes and Nisqually rivers, Woodland and McAllister creeks and nearby lakes – knowing that new water rights in one jurisdiction would impact water availability next door. In that regard, the delays in granting additional water rights served a useful purpose.
Now – finally – officials at the state regulatory agency say they are preparing to release draft decisions on water requests for the three jurisdictions. Those draft recommendations should be available for public inspection by mid June.
“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 bolster their case, councils for the three water-strapped cities last week agreed to purchase a 197-acre farm and its water rights on the Deschutes River south of Yelm, near Lake Lawrence. The purchase price was $1.2 million.
The farm’s water rights will be used as part of a mitigation plan to offset the effects new city wells will have on Deschutes River 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.
While negotiating with Ecology, the challenge facing the three cities was to prove – through modeling, acquisitions and additional studies – that withdrawing more groundwater wouldn’t cause more damage to surface waters which would impact salmon runs and have other adverse environmental consequences.
Ecology officials are signaling that their concerns have been largely addressed.
“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.”
That’s not to say additional water rights are a done deal. Far from it. In fact, leaders of the Squaxin Island Tribe have 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.
Even if Ecology gives Olympia, Lacey and Yelm the rights to additional water resources, the tribe could sue and the issue could be tied up in the courts for years.
The next step, however, is to see what Ecology is going to recommend. After the recommendations are released in mid-June, residents, the tribe and anyone else will have a month to file written comments. Ecology is set to issue a final ruling 30 days later.
Under the joint proposal of the three jurisdictions, Olympia will transfer water rights for 26 million gallons a day from McAllister and Abbott springs to a nearby well field it will 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.
Lacey wants 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. Lacey will stress conservation, be vigilant about water leaks and purchase water from Olympia. Under the plan, developers in Lacey’s urban growth boundary would be required to come to the table with their own water rights.
Yelm will expand its water supply by 942 acre-feet, and hopefully, avoid a building moratorium.
Current and future residents in all three cities have a lot riding on Ecology’s recommendations because any building moratoriums for lack of water resources will have immediate and lasting economic impacts. It’s reassuring to – finally – see progress on the water rights front.