State starts to set Clallam water rules

By Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News

April 8, 2007

Clallam County, WA - State water planners have started the process that will decide if the Elwha and Dungeness rivers are half-empty or half-full for both salmon and humans.

The Department of Ecology, aided by Clallam County government and selected citizens, is setting rules for Water Resource Inventory Area 18, better known as WRIA 18, that includes both river basins.

The rules - separate sets for each watershed - will attempt to divvy up their water for both humans and fish.

The rules will affect both economic development and the environment.

By law, Ecology is charged both with managing drinking water for people and with conserving water for salmon.

Once it sets rules, Ecology is expected to end its ban on new water rights in Clallam County, meaning the Public Utility District and other water purveyors could drill new wells to supply new public systems.

Ecology would require such wells, however, to be drilled to the second aquifer - a layer of rock that holds water - or deeper.

The preliminary plan for WRIA 18 - weathered by controversy and winnowed in public meetings - received Clallam County commissioners' approval in June 2005 after five years of work.

Renewed water rights
Hundreds of pages long, that plan is only a guideline, however, for Ecology's rule-setting process that could last eight months or more and cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The kernel of contention will be water rights - permission from Ecology to drill and pump from wells - especially in the rapidly developing Dungeness Valley.

Those rights, in turn, will be determined by what are called instream flows - how much water must be reserved for threatened Chinook salmon, Hood Canal and East Juan de Fuca Strait summer chum, and bull trout to migrate and spawn.

And those flows may be affected by a number of conservation strategies, one of which would store water underground during the region's wet winter.

The water then could be withdrawn in summer and fall to fill irrigation ditches and the rivers themselves.

Clallam County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, long active in efforts to restore the Dungeness River, said Friday that Ecology had "started the clock ticking."

The state supposedly has 120 days to draft its rules, "but I don't think that is realistic," he said.

Rather, he thinks Ecology may render its final rules late this year or early in 2008.

Quarrelsome process
Easing the process will be the work - often quarrelsome - that forged the WRIA 18 preliminary plan.

In autumn 2004, strong objections from real estate dealers, well drillers and developers prompted commissioners to send the plan back "on the road" to civic clubs and interest groups.

It gathered broad - if sometimes grudging - support in the process.

Today, the Dungeness Water Working Group - which Tharinger said "will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting" in the citizen role of the rule-making process - has a broad base of members.

"The various constituent groups - well drillers, Realtors, developers, environmentalists - are at the table," he said.

"There's going to be some intense discussion, but I think we'll get there."

Just where is "there" includes the question of instream flows, the set-aside amount of water for fish.

"The idea is to come up with some sort of water banking or recharge," Tharinger said.

"There's going to be a lot of discussion about the ability to move water around," he said, among competing users: residents, farmers and fish.

Being thrifty with water
Meanwhile, a corollary activity to the WRIA 18 - identifying and repairing failing septic tanks - is under way under the direction of the county and state Departments of Health.

The WRIA 18 plan can be found at the Clallam County Web site,

More information on the Ecology rule-making process is available at

"The process is just starting out," said Tharinger.

"The key really will be management of the resource, whether it's setting up a water bank or storage or recharge or whatever."

In other words, Tharinger said, people in Clallam County must learn to be thrifty with what they once thought they had in overabundance - water.

"People can't continue to use water," he said, "without some thought of conservation."

Reporter Jim Casey can be reached at 360-417-3538 or at



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