Is it a good idea to allow unregulated well drilling that will dry up our salmon streams? Is it a good idea for local governments to approve building in rural areas without asking whether there’s enough water?
The answer from the Squaxin Island Tribe is a resounding no.
The tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing areas cover all of South Sound, including Case and Carr Inlets, along the east shore of southern Puget Sound from the Nisqually River to the Tacoma Narrows, including Anderson Island, McNeil Island and Fox Island.
We support a 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision that protects groundwater. Yet some legislators, including Sen. Randi Becker, in a News Tribune op-ed piece, are clouding over the truth with alarm bells and misinformation.
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They are asking you to support a bill that, if passed, will reverse the court’s Hirst decision, and maintain the status quo of unregulated groundwater use and no sustainable planning in rural areas.
In Hirst, the court held that local governments can’t use outdated state rules to avoid finding out whether there’s enough available water before allowing development. This scientifically sound ruling comes directly out of Washington’s longstanding water codes.
Hirst requires local governments and the state Department of Ecology to do up-front planning so development relying on groundwater can still occur, just not in a way that takes water away from “senior” water rights.
These older rights include people like farmers who irrigate crops, as well as instream flow rights that require water be left in streams for fish.
Despite our famous rainy winters, it is the dry summer and early fall months that pose problems. Salmon must have freshwater creeks to return to and spawn, but instream flows are often unmet.
When there is less water during these critical months, fewer salmon survive and fewer can be caught. This annual water scarcity will increase with climate change.
A law undoing the Hirst decision would ensure a path to uncertainty and litigation. The Squaxin Island Tribe knows this path is undesirable.
We care deeply about maintaining rural development, healthy economies and thriving fish populations for the long haul. We care about working with neighbors to develop creative approaches.
We can protect instream flows for fish and senior water rights holders and still have responsible development. But to get there, we need to understand what Hirst actually does:
1. The Hirst decision still allows development in rural areas.
Development can occur in watersheds where there is enough water to supply instream flows during critical months.
In places where this is not the case, local governments and Ecology have many tools that will allow development that relies on groundwater. They include retiring unused senior water rights, requiring water conservation and using reclaimed water.
Local governments and Ecology must step up to the plate, rather than duck these hard issues, as they have been doing for decades. They can and should ensure the burden does not fall on individual property owners.
2. Reversing Hirst would mean more uncertainty.
Uncertainty is never good for business. If we undo the court decision, it will mean more development will occur in unsustainable places.
Property values will decline when water use is cut back at key times to support senior users and instream flows. And the lack of long-term planning may lead tribes to ask federal courts to declare and enforce their senior rights.
3. Rural wells impact vital streams.
Opponents of Hirst argue that rural wells take only a small fraction of water across the state. This ignores the fact that in small watersheds, unchecked well use can have large impacts on streamflows.
For example, on Johns Creek in Mason County, we have seen measurable impacts by hundreds of exempt wells, putting a weak run of summer chum in peril.
This tribe stands ready to help develop tools to ensure that development can still occur in rural areas. Let’s not pretend that rural groundwater problems do not exist. The responsible thing to do is work collaboratively on a local, basin-by-basin level to plan for our children’s futures.
Arnold Cooper is vice chair of the Squaxin Island Tribe.