WA State department of ecology proposes stricter water rules
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Jul. 14, 2003
Olympia, WA - The new water-quality standards proposed by the state
sparkle with signs of improvement, but environmentalists say they're
seven years late, watered down and undermined by new legislation.
The rules establish standards for water temperature, the dumping of
toxic chemicals and the protection of pristine rivers and lakes.
"They're the foundation of what clean water is in Washington,"
said Megan White, head of the Department of Ecology's water program.
"They define what is polluted and what is clean."
One of the highlights is stricter temperature standards that should
keep water cool enough to protect endangered fish such as bull trout,
She also was pleased with language that establishes a path for winning
more safeguards for certain waterways. Communities can petition the
department for special protections to stop the degradation of pristine
rivers by prohibiting most or all new pollution sources.
"That's a step in the right direction," Ivy Sager-Rosenthal
of the Washington Public Interest Research Group said of the new protections.
But the standards overall are "really a mixed bag."
Environmentalists are worried that the water temperatures allowed
are still too high, though farmers and business groups have previously
found the regulations "fish-centric."
Overshadowing the new standards is legislation passed this spring
that forbids the Ecology Department to consider water quality when
allowing people to take water from rivers for irrigation and other
"It divorces water quality and water quantity," Sager-Rosenthal
Some 53 streams in the state have poor water quality because of low
flow, according to the department. In a proposed update of impaired
water bodies to be released this fall, that number swells to 400.
As the flow of water drops, its temperature can rise. Warm water can
be lethal to fish such as salmon and trout at all phases of their
Ecology officials argue that there are other ways to keep the streams
flowing cold and clean. They can rent or buy water rights. The department
has previously worked with those holding water rights to voluntarily
maintain stream flows. In extreme cases, the Ecology Department can
still force people to stop taking water, though not because of water
quality concerns. Officials said the bill wouldn't impede their efforts.
"I think there is an assumption that we could use water quality
laws to take water rights away. We can't," department spokeswoman
Sheryl Hutchison said. "If we have low flows and it's due to
people using water rights ... water quality laws are not going to
Environmentalists counter that the agency did have this power, but
never used it.
It's as if a sheriff doesn't use his gun for 10 years, so someone
says he doesn't need it, said Josh Baldi, policy director for the
Washington Environmental Council. "Taking away this authority
sent a very bad message.
"We don't think it should be legal to dry up streams," he
Also included in the bill was a provision that increases the penalty
for illegal water use from a maximum of $100 a day, an amount set
in 1917, to up to $5,000 a day.
In the past, the department has been helpless in its efforts to curb
recalcitrant abusers of water rights, officials said.
"The legislation adds a real strong hammer to go after illegal
water use that we don't currently have," White said.
But many of the waterways that are drying up are doing so because
of legal water withdrawal, environmentalists said.
The ability to levy higher fines against lawbreakers won't help in
After 10 years of research, public comment and redrafting, it's likely
to be a while before the rules are updated again. By law, the state
must review the standards every three years, but that doesn't mean
they will be changed again soon. The focus now, White said, will be
on the implementation of the rules.
"We've spent a lot of time getting to the right answer on these
standards," she said.
Next month the updated rules go to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency for approval.
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or email@example.com