By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Commissioners Jim McEntire and Mike Chapman asked Ecology Director Maia Bellon in the letter to help provide “mitigation” water to affected landowners in the Dungeness River basin.
Commissioner Mike Doherty voted against the letter, citing the impacts of climate change and a diminishing water supply from a shrinking mid-Olympic Mountain snowpack.
“Just philosophically, we know there's going to be a shortage,” Doherty said.
“Personally, I just don't want to dabble in these little efficiencies of the rule to help certain people in certain areas when the bigger problem is, are we going to have water 20, 30, 40 years from now?”
The Dungeness water rule took effect in January 2013 after years of planning and controversy.
Covering the eastern half of Water Resource Inventory Area 18 from Bagley Creek to Sequim Bay, the rule was intended to protect water supplies for people, fish and other wildlife.
It sets minimum flow levels for the Dungeness River and its tributaries, and requires the owners of certain wells to mitigate their use of water.
“Right now, there's kind of an inhibition on people buying themselves land that's associated with the area inside the rule, where the rule is affected, and that's just not a good situation,” McEntire said.
McEntire cited legal uncertainties surrounding a state Supreme Court ruling that Ecology overstepped its bounds by using a defense called an “overriding consideration of public interest,” referred to as an OCPI, to allocate more Skagit River water to agricultural and building industries.
“People's rights to use their property to buy and sell in a traditional way is affected by the existence of that uncertainty,” McEntire said.
“So this letter really urges Ecology to do something, and I don't know what that something would be — that's up to them — but do something to resolve the uncertainties and to make sure that the rule actually works the way it's intended to work.
“That, in my view, is the thrust of the letter.”
The letter follows a Jan. 21 petition from the Olympic Resource Protection Council asking Ecology to amend the rule.
Council attorney Kristina Nelson-Gross thanked the commissioners for adding the letter to their agenda.
She said the OCPI defense in the case of the Swinomish Tribe vs Ecology in Skagit County created uncertainty about legal authority for the rule.
“While ideally we would have liked to have seen a unanimous decision, we certainly understand and appreciate Commissioner Doherty's position,” Nelson-Gross said.
By amending the rule, Nelson-Gross said the council hopes for a “real conversation” about the balance between people's needs and environmental needs.
Ecology has until March 22 to respond to the petition.
The Port Angeles Business Association supported the council's position to amend the rule in a Jan. 28 letter to Ecology, saying the rule “imposes unreasonable restrictions on private exempt well water use, with serious negative effects on the economic development of the area.”
During the debate, McEntire said a $100,000 portion of a $2 million provision in the state capital budget will be used for a study that “really kind of nails down the science” behind a yellow-shaded area in the southern Dungeness Valley where mitigation water is available for domestic use only.
“So that study is going to lock down kind of the science to figure out exactly what parts of that yellow area are aquifer and which parts are bedrock and try to figure out exactly what parts should be turned green,” McEntire said.
Doherty said his “hang-up” with the letter was the fact that some existing wells have trouble getting water in the late summer and early fall.
“My thought has been to try to protect those residents we have to help solve some of their water problems rather than opening up new, challenging geologic areas so we can keep subdividing lots,” Doherty said.
McEntire said the budget proviso contains about $1.2 million worth of “in-process” projects for “streamflow mitigation for rural development and streamflow restoration.”
Doherty said he was concerned over “providing publicly subsidized development infrastructure” in “marginal land.”
“Sooner or later, we have to acknowledge there are some lands you just can't maximize development on,” Doherty said.
Existing regulations require that a landowner prove there is enough water to subdivide, McEntire said.
“This is not a public subsidy,” McEntire told Doherty.
“It is simply a mechanism by which if the state imposes a rule, I think the state has some obligation to make sure that the intent of the rule can be achieved.”
Doherty said diminished snowpacks and receding glaciers present “a challenge” for future water supply.
“And I think we should be more up front warning people who buy property that there's a challenge in certain areas, and that's what the current [yellow] shading on the map does,” Doherty said.
“I think it's a pretty fair warning to people.”
McEntire countered that Dungeness River flows have steadily increased since a drought in 1988.
Chapman emphasized that funding for the rule's implementation comes from the state, not the county.
Doherty said he supported asking the state for $100,000 “as a transition to the new world of water shortages.”
“But beyond that, I think it's irresponsible,” Doherty said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.