State ecology agency issues revision of water regulations -almost everyone involved hated the proposal - agricultural interests likely to challenge as "too fish-centric"



Olympia, WA - State environmental officials yesterday unveiled a long-promised proposal to overhaul the state's outdated water-quality rules. As Ecology Department officials feared, almost everyone involved in the debate hated the proposal.

The new standards would strengthen water protections -- for example, requiring streams cold enough for bull trout to thrive -- but did not go as far as environmentalists had hoped.

On the other side of the argument, agricultural interests said they are likely to challenge the new rules in court as "too fish-centric" unless the draft regulations are changed in coming months.

"Our goal . . . is to protect Washington waters in the best practicable way," said Megan White, head of Ecology's clean-water program. "We've had to find a balance between quite conflicting viewpoints. We don't expect consensus on something this controversial."

Ecology officials scheduled a series of public hearings on the proposed rules, including one Feb. 4 in Seattle. "If anyone has a better proposal, we want to hear it," White said in a briefing for the media.

The new proposal follows years of delays. The federal Clean Water Act requires states to re-examine their water-pollution rules every three years and tighten them if warranted. The last major overhaul of Washington's rules was in late 1991, which Ecology admits is far too long ago.

The idea behind the 1972 Clean Water Act was that as scientists learned more about how to control water pollution, the rules would be periodically tightened. Then, as water polluters' government-issued permits came up for renewal -- typically every five years -- pollution limits would be reduced. Because of the delays in rewriting Washington's rules, though, that hasn't always happened.

Environmentalists fear more delays.

"If we felt these standards were going to be looked at and updated . . . as the Clean Water Act requires, we wouldn't be as worried," said Ivy Sager-Rosenthal of Washington Public Interest Research Group. "But given the fact that it's taken 10 years to do this latest round, we are looking at another 10 years before we get stronger standards?"

Probably the most controversial section tightens the requirements for keeping streams cold enough for fish. Citing recent scientific studies, the new rules say bull trout -- protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 -- should get water at about 55 degrees or colder for spawning and early growth.

That compares to about 59 degrees under the current rules. That four-degree difference doesn't sound big, but it matters a lot to fish and to people who pull water out of streams, making streams warmer.

Those limits would not always be enforced, though. Ecology says no one will be faulted if the natural condition of a stream, lake or bay is warmer than the requirements. But people can't do things to make a water body warmer than fish can tolerate, Ecology says.

That worries the Washington Farm Bureau. Its spokesman, Dean Boyer, called the proposed rules too "fish-centric."

"We think that goes far beyond what the Clean Water Act allows or calls for," Boyer said. "In the past, certainly, temperature has been an aspect of water quality. But to specifically tie the water-quality designations to how certain stretches of water are being used by fish, that goes another step.

"We're no longer saying, 'What is the quality of the water?' but rather 'Does a fish enjoy it not?' "

Although farmers can and do make some streams warmer by withdrawing water -- or by pumping up extremely cold groundwater that otherwise would flow into a stream and keep it cool -- Ecology denied that water users have anything to fear.

"We want to be really clear about that. There's nothing in this proposal that affects current water rights," White said.

Other aspects of the proposed rules likely to generate debate include:

A policy that a water body can't be polluted further, even if it could accept more pollution without violating water-quality standards, unless it is shown that the additional pollution is "in the overriding public interest." Environmentalists say there are too many loopholes in the new "anti-degradation" policy; business interests fear it will crimp economic growth.

Ecology's dropping of plans to plug what environmentalists consider a huge loophole. Businesses are allowed, usually based on computer models or other calculations, to dump enough pollution to violate water-quality standards if they can show that the standards will be met at some point downstream, typically several hundred feet.

Revamping the way the standards are figured. Instead of lumping large numbers of water bodies together in a class and setting numeric criteria governing that class of water, Ecology would look at each water body independently and determine what the standards need to be for that particular stream or lake. More information on Ecology's proposal is available at


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