Agency to recommend minimum flows to aid fish

Tuesday, February 17, 2004
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

Olympia, WA - More than a century after the state began doling out water rights to people, the state Department of Ecology now intends to recommend a minimum flow of water for fish, too.

The agency expects to adopt minimum flows by 2005 for Salmon Creek and the Washougal River in Clark County. The Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board received $200,000 in state funding in December 2001 to compile the best scientific information available, and then recommend minimum flows to sustain imperiled salmon and steelhead.

If adopted by the Department of Ecology, the minimum would be tantamount to granting a water right to the fish that live in the stream as opposed to the people who live along it.

But state officials acknowledge the minimum flow won't mean much during the most critical times.

"Simply setting flows does not guarantee that the flows will be met, or met all the time," said Curt Hart, public information manager for Ecology's water resources program. "Last year was almost a drought year, and 2001 was a drought year."

Fish may benefit through market-based measures to improve stream flow.

The Department of Ecology will pursue water-right buyouts and leases; help fund and evaluate irrigation efficiency and water-conservation plans; and support a pilot program to create local water exchanges.

Already, 250 streams across the state would run dry if water-right holders exercised their full right to withdraw water. About half the area of the state has insufficient water to support all the needs of people, plants and animals, according to "Our Changing Nature," a 1998 publication produced by the Department of Natural Resources.

The minimum flow won't affect water rights already issued in a watershed.

"We're striving to strike a balance between protecting a healthy ecosystem and supporting growth and a vibrant economy," said Joe Stohr, manager of Ecology's water resources program.

In Clark County, stream flow is influenced by the withdrawal of groundwater near creeks. In July, in fact, Clark Public Utilities agreed to shut down two wells near Salmon Creek when the stream's flow dwindled to 14 cubic feet per second, well below the 42 cfs recommended by fishery biologists.

Some 2,500 private wells along the creek would be unaffected by a newly established minimum stream flow -- as would any new wells, as long as they meet the state's water-right exemption by withdrawing less than 5,000 gallons per day. Hart noted that private wells would still be subject to the impairment test, meaning they wouldn't be allowed to impair the ability of senior water-right holders to withdraw water.



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