Few drivers going over the Nisqually River on Interstate 5 are likely thinking about what the freeway means for salmon. David Troutt thinks about it every day.
That’s because I-5 acts like a dam, causing flooding upstream and threatening vital habitat. Two decades ago, the Nisqually Indian Tribe began returning what was human-made farmland to natural salt marsh, good news for salmon and the orcas that depend on them.
“(That’s) at risk,” said Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe and chairman of the Nisqually River Council. “We’re seeing the impacts now and we’re projecting those impacts to continue with sea level rise. A lot of the benefits that we anticipated may be lost if we don’t do something.”
Water is much discussed these days, from sea level rise and drought brought on by climate change to salmon and orca recovery efforts. Recent legislation requires long-term planning by state and local leaders when it comes to water availability.
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The League of Women Voters of Thurston County kicks off a five-part series Tuesday on water, sponsored by The Olympian. Troutt and Kevin Hansen, a Thurston County hydrogeologist, will discuss I-5’s effect on the Nisqually River and groundwater and stream flows in Thurston County.
Future forums will address rural water, toxic runoff and what low stream flows mean for salmon and orcas.
The league, which is nonpartisan, does occasional policy studies on issues to inform its advocacy. It launched a study last year on water, which was an update to a study completed in 2008.
“We started talking to different people who know more about water than I do — (which was) it comes out of the faucet, right? — and quickly realized there’s a lot going on since 2008,” said Paula Holroyde, who is leading the study for the league. “If we didn’t have a clue (about what had changed), there was a good chance a lot of other residents of Thurston County didn’t have a clue.”
Changes include legislation passed last year — commonly known as the Hirst fix. That was a reaction to the state Supreme Court’s decision in 2016 that ruled counties have a responsibility to protect water resources when approving developments that use wells.
Traditionally, questions of water availability fell to the state’s Department of Ecology, which issues permits for large wells, but over the years those permits became harder to secure. Meanwhile, smaller residential wells are exempt from permits, but enough of them can have a major effect on water availability.
Thurston County has about 20,000 permit-exempt wells.
Now, counties must work with cities, tribes, environmental groups and others on plans to lessen the effect of future wells. The first such plan submitted to state regulators was for the Nisqually watershed and calls for decommissioning some existing wells, replacing shallow wells with deeper ones and an ambitious proposal to buy forestland to change how it is logged in order to use less water.
The state Department of Ecology approved that plan Friday. That’s good news, but much work is left to do, said Hansen, the county hydrogeologist.
“Everybody’s been talking about the Hirst fix like it fixes everything. It doesn’t,” he said. “It fixes a small part of a much bigger issue.”
The League of Women Voters of Thurston County’s five-part series, “Where’s the Water,” kicks off Tuesday and continues into May:
“Where’s the Water: Reality Check” at 6 p.m. Feb. 5 at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia
“Where’s the Water: Water for People, Water for Fish” at 6 p.m. March 5 at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia
“Where’s the Water: Rural Water Challenges & Solutions” at 6 p.m. March 19 at the Yelm Community Center, 301 Second St. SE, Yelm
“Where’s the Water: Storm Water & Toxic Runoff” at 6 p.m. April 2 at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia
“Where’s the Water: Streams, Salmon & Orcas” at 6 p.m. Mary 7 at The Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia