Water issues boil to the top - Local water managers hope legislation will break a water-rights logjam.

Christopher Dunagan
Bremerton Sun Staff

January 29, 2003

Managing water supplies in Kitsap County would be a whole lot easier if there wasn't so much state bureaucracy to deal with, according to Bill Hahn of Kitsap Public Utility District.
Eliminating some of that bureaucracy is the goal of several bills working their way through the Legislature this year.

Ultimately, the resolution could affect how Kitsap and other counties manage growth.

In Hahn's view, Kitsap's cities and water utilities are capable of making responsible decisions to:

Move available water to where residential and commercial growth is planned.

Drill wells in the right places to ensure adequate and secure water supplies.

Leave enough water in local streams for fish to thrive.

Being able to use water -- or being forced to leave it for the fish -- has everything to do with water rights, which must be approved by the state Department of Ecology.

Hahn says water system managers across Kitsap County are frustrated because they have spent millions of dollars putting in new wells that can't be used until water rights are approved.

"Our (PUD) commissioners are growing impatient because we keep doing the right things," Hahn said. "We spend a good bit of money on test wells and studies but keep running into brick walls with Ecology."

If something isn't done to get more water rights approved, he added, some areas of the county may face building moratoriums and the PUD may stop taking over old water systems.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders fear that making it too easy to obtain water rights could lead to dry streams, with severe impact on the ecosystem.

Gov. Gary Locke appears to be listening to water system managers this year. He has proposed legislation that would allow a utility to transfer unused water rights from one well to another. In many cases, Ecology wouldn't even be involved.

In the Vinland area of North Kitsap, the PUD consolidated three old water systems: Edgewater, Bella Vista and Vinland View.

"We used the wells from those three systems that we joined together," Hahn said. "When you have a number of wells, you have a lot more flexibility."

Technically, the PUD must allocate water to the three original water systems from their own wells, Hahn said. Combining water rights would make things simpler.

"The new legislation is supposed to change them automatically if they are held by a public water supply," Hahn said.


Dependent on wells
Kitsap is one of only a few counties in the state that doesn't depend on major rivers for its water. On the Kitsap Peninsula, about 80 percent of the water comes from wells, with the rest from Bremerton's Casad Dam on the Union River.

"One of the reasons we stay so plugged in down there (in Olympia) is because we are different," said Hahn, who serves as water committee chairman for Washington PUD Association.

Water system managers are encouraged by a bill that would lock in water for their future needs out to 50 years.

That worries Josh Baldi, policy director for Washington Environmental Council. Already, in some areas, if water systems used all their water rights, it essentially would dry up a river or overtax an aquifer.

"One thing that a lot of people don't understand is that there are very old certificates with huge quantities of water," he said. "The question is, as we grow, are we going to make the most efficient use of a limited resource?"

The governor's bill would require water systems to develop plans outlining their needs for growth. They would give up water rights beyond their needs. The bill also would require conservation.

Locke has taken a step-by-step approach the past two years to focus on water rights transfers and changes.

During 2002, Ecology processed 548 changes to existing water rights -- triple the rate before legislative action in 2001.


On hold
New water rights, however, remain on hold.

"We have plenty of water," said Morgan Johnson of Silverdale Water District. "The main issue is water-rights processing with Ecology."

For the past 12 years, Silverdale has been trying to get water rights to allow the use of three inactive wells.

"We have made a considerable investment in those facilities, but the rights have not been granted," he said.

Dan Swenson, regional water manager for Ecology, said his agency is focused on water-rights transfers and changes, because that's what the Legislature asked for. The governor's latest legislation would eliminate Ecology's involvement in many cases.

"If we can reduce the amount of applications sitting in the queue, then we can move on to new water rights applications," Swenson said.

Like other local managers, Johnson of Silverdale Water District believes the answer to serving Kitsap's future population will be to bring water to the urban centers rather than moving the population to sensitive rural areas.

He said the county needs to protect aquifer-recharge areas that allow rainwater to filter down into deposits of sand and gravel, from which wells draw their supply.


Work arounds
With new water rights on hold, some developers are opting to build homes with private wells or to create tiny systems that get around the need for water rights. Private wells are generally shallower and can intercept groundwater that supplies streams needed by fish and wildlife.

Johnson envisions interlocking water systems throughout Kitsap County.

"I'm a firm believer that we need to get the water to where it is needed," Johnson said. "Let's not look at it as 'our boundary' or 'their boundary' but the county as one complete water system."

With adequate recharge and conservation, he added, the county should have enough water for all uses.

One of the governor's water bills would authorize $100,000 to implement local watershed plans -- including one for the Kitsap Peninsula.

Keith Folkerts, who coordinates Kitsap's planning effort, said a major goal is to calculate a "water balance," including how much can be safely taken from an aquifer.

The plan is scheduled for completion in 2005.


Planning can work
Swenson of Ecology said Kitsap County has a successful example of how watershed planning can work. In the Seabeck area, studies were conducted to assess the capacity of the underlying aquifer to serve area homes. The biggest concern was whether groundwater withdrawals would affect flows in nearby Seabeck and Big Beef creeks.

PUD officials worked out an agreement with Ecology and the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe that allowed use of a major well -- provided that if summer streamflows became critical, some of the well water would be diverted into the streams.

Dave Fuller, water resource coordinator for the S'Klallam Tribe, said the stream will be studied for years, and new water rights can be issued incrementally.

The tribes have their own problems with Locke's water bills, said Fuller, who stressed that he has not yet discussed the legislation with his tribal council.

One problem, he said, is that the bills don't acknowledge Indian treaty rights to water needed by fish and wildlife.

"I'm concerned about changes ... that don't make a lot of technical sense and throw the whole water rights issue into the courts," he said.

Tribes are among the interest groups angling for amendments as the bills move through the Legislature.

Reach Christopher Dunagan at (360) 792-9207 or at cdunagan@thesunlink.com.

 

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