Tribe asks Gregoire to order Ecology to halt well drilling

A water use dispute in Mason County is headed for the desk of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Squaxin Island Tribe has asked the governor to order the state Department of Ecology to halt new well-drilling activity in the Johns Creek watershed near Shelton because withdrawals are reducing stream flows vital to salmon.

Ecology officials announced Monday that they had rejected the tribe’s request for the second time in the past two years, saying they lacked sufficient data to verify the impacts of continued well drilling in the 10,500-acre watershed northeast of Shelton.

Ecology also said it lacked the resources and funding to conduct the necessary hydrology study, but said it was applying to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a grant to do the work.

That drew a sharp response from tribal officials, who said the creek doesn’t meet the minimum flow requirements to support a small and fragile population of summer chum salmon that calls the creek home.

“Ecology’s excuse is the lack of resources. It takes a commitment to their responsibilities, not money, to close the basin,” said Kevin Lyon, the tribe’s attorney. “The rule is simple: If you lack information, you don’t take the water – especially when minimum flows are not being met.”

The dispute revolves around so-called exempt wells, which are wells that serve several homes and don’t need a water rights permit from Ecology, and increased industrial and commercial development in the Johns Creek area.

In response to the second petition, Ecology has agreed to limit future exempt wells to indoor water use in the Johns Creek basin, Ecology director Ted Sturdevant said.

Meanwhile, the grant application to the EPA for a comprehensive groundwater study is due in March and a funding decision is expected this summer, Ecology officials said.

“We agree a study needs to be done,” tribal natural resources director Andy Whitener said, adding that the tribe, the City of Shelton and Mason County have been asking Ecology for just such a study since 2006.

“It’s ironic that they have now twice rejected our petition because they need a study that they won’t fund,” tribal assistant natural resources director Jeff Dickison said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444