Editorials

Cities on right path to deal with water issues

What started as a brazen attempt by the city of Olympia to seize water rights at the old Olympia Brewing Co. plant in Tumwater has ended amicably with Thurston County’s three largest cities securing joint jurisdiction over additional water resources.

Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater have received a letter from the state Department of Ecology granting them rights to millions of gallons of water that was once used in the manufacture of Olympia Beer. Ecology approved the cities’ request to change the use from industrial to municipal. The cities can now proceed with the construction of the piping infrastructure necessary to put the water to use in their communities.

All three communities are in desperate need of additional water resources in order to meet the demand of a growing population and retail base. Securing the rights to brewery water is an important step forward and should help pave the way for an eventual Ecology ruling on Lacey’s water rights applications that have been on file with the state agency for more than a dozen years.

ROUGH START

The amicable resolution to the brewery water rights issue is a sharp contrast to the way the saga began.

The brewery closed in June 2003, costing about 400 employees their jobs. In February 2006, the Olympia City Council stunned the community when council members emerged from a closed-door session and voted unanimously to condemn land for water rights in the city of Tumwater at the defunct brewery. As stunning as the move was and as badly as it was handled, it was the right decision.

If Olympia had not made first claim on millions of gallons of water a day, someone else could have.

Unbeknownst to everyone else, attorneys hired by the city of Olympia stumbled onto the fact that a law dating back more than 100 years allows cities to condemn unused water rights outside their city limits. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis.

City Manager Steve Hall quietly took the information to the Olympia City Council in a closed-door meeting. He was convinced that if he got the go-ahead to file a lawsuit, Olympia would be first in line at the courthouse the following morning to receive the brewery’s water rights.

To his credit, Hall said the city had every intention of sharing the water with Lacey and Tumwater. After 90 minutes of secret discussion, the council voted unanimously to send lawyers to the courthouse for the brewery’s water rights.

The night of the council vote, Olympia Mayor Mark Foutch made courtesy calls informing Tumwater Mayor Ralph Osgood of Olympia’s plan. Osgood was “shocked” by the news. Lacey Mayor Virgil Clarkson said he was “taken aback.”

While Olympia stumbled in not letting Tumwater take the lead, city leaders were able to move beyond their shock and come to an agreement on sharing the water resources from 18 acres at the Tumwater-based brewery. They paid $5.3 million to compensate the property owner, Well B Ng LLC.

WATER RIGHTS

Under state law, no individual or government entity owns the state’s water resources. The state Department of Ecology, however, has authority to approve and deny water rights applications filed by users. Ecology officials must weigh the impact a water drawdown by one user will have on other users and such things as stream flows. Since underground water resources don’t follow city or county boundaries, water rights decisions can have consequences that extend for miles.

Transferring the right to extract water from aquifers is an easier process than granting a new water rights application.

The cities sought, and have now received, Ecology’s permission to transfer the water from industrial to municipal use.

Ecology did make one small change before granting permission, however. In his approval letter, Thomas Loranger, section manager for Ecology’s water resources program, said the Thurston County Water Conservancy Board miscalculated the amount of water available for transfer from the brewery to the cities. The board calculated water use based on the last five years of the brewery operation. Loranger said case law clearly says the correct method of determining the amount of water available for transfer is to count back five years from 2006 when Olympia sought the water rights.

Ecology’s new calculation had the effect of reducing the amount of water available for the cities from 758 million gallons a year to 744 million gallons a year. The cities will share the water resources equally.

The additional water is clearly a step in the right direction. But it does not solve the long-term needs of Olympia, Lacey or Tumwater. They need additional water resources to avoid building moratoriums.

It’s imperative that the cities continue to work in collaboration with Ecology, Thurston County and the tribes to secure additional water rights to keep their economic development plans viable.

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