SEQUIM — When it comes to state water rights, the general rule is to use it or lose it.
The Sequim Association of Realtors and the statewide Washington Realtors association — with all eyes looking to the state Department of Ecology’s adoption of the Dungeness River Water Management Rule sometime this fall — are drilling that message home.
The real estate organizations are spending more than $6,000 to mail out post cards to Dungeness Valley-area property owners.
Almost 24,000 cards recently were mailed to valley property owners saying that if they don’t drill wells, build homes on their land now and adequately use their water, they will have to pay for water rights later.
About 4,000 of those were mailed to property owners living outside Clallam County, said Heidi Hansen, Sequim Association of Realtors president.
The Dungeness Valley water management rule area extends from Bagley Creek on the west to Sequim Bay on the east.
It is the result of the state-initiated Dungeness River water management rule, to be initiated in early fall.
“One of the questions we asked is, ‘How are you going to warn the property owner?’” Hansen said, adding that she and other Sequim-area Realtors were told by Ecology officials that the agency could not afford it.
So the Sequim Association of Realtors and the Washington Realtors association split the costs of producing and mailing out the cards.
The cards depict a scenic shot of the Dungeness River where it flows into Dungeness Bay.
On the back of the cards is included the information that “development of vacant land will be subject to the rule, even parcels purchased or subdividided years ago.
“The rule prohibits new water rights and exempt wells unless mitigation is purchased, and requires metering and reporting of new water uses.”
The rule also will impact wells “that are already drilled if water from the well has not yet been used for domestic purposes.”
The issues hangs on the issue of whether a property owner has adequately used water.
“If you only come here for one month a year, you have not put the water to good use,” Hansen explained.
“If you are not living on it on a regular basis, you are not putting it to good use.”
That means property owners who are not using water when the state adopts the rule this fall have to purchase water rights through what Ecology officials call “mitigation.”
Tom Loranger, Ecology’s deputy programs manager, said the postcard does not mention what he believes to be the most notable part of the water management rule.
“It’s going to provide much more certainty that people are going to have water provided when they want to develop their property,” he said.
“When building permits are being issued by the county, they will be able know that there is water available.”
Ecology representatives said the proposed rule would:
■ Establish in-stream flow levels — which comes down to a water right for the stream itself — in the Dungeness to protect fish and wildlife habitat.
■ Establish reserves of water for future indoor domestic use.
■ Allow water storage projects.
■ Require mitigation for all new use of water, including permit-exempt wells.
■ Require measuring of new water use.
■ Close surface water to new withdrawals with the exception of seasonal water from the Dungeness.
The new rule will not affect existing water rights at the time the rule takes effect, including continued use of permit-exempt wells where regular beneficial use began previously.
It would not affect tribal or federal reserved rights to water.
Hansen — along with Dungeness Valley Realtor Marguerite Glover, who has nearly 30 years of studying water matters affecting the Dungeness Valley — constructed the site, www.sequimwater.com.
The site says “the rule as proposed by the Department of Ecology does affect many property owners adversely and did not address these owners directly prior to putting the rule in place.”
Glover most recently has been a member of the Local Leaders Water Working Group, which has been advising Ecology on the water management rule.
Glover first became involved in valley and county water studies with the Sequim Bay Watershed Management Committee in the late 1980s, then as a member of the Dungeness River Management Committee, which eventually became the Dungeness River Management Team, and on Clallam County’s Groundwater Committee.
She was an alternate for the Business Caucus on the Dungeness-Quilcene Regional Planning Group, which finished its work in 1994.
Glover and Hansen said that in general, water rights are lost if they are not used for five years.
“How many water rights have been lost? That is a big question, and the answer they have given us is we need more water in the river,” Glover said.
“I love water. I love fish,” Glover said.
“I think it’s really important . . . but this thing is overkill.”
Loranger said there is a good reason why state water rights expire if they are not used for five years.
“They don’t want people sitting on water and speculating on it,” he said.
He said there are a number of exceptions to the rule that can ensure water rights will remain in effect.
He said the county hired an economist who estimated that for a new typical household on 1 to 5 acres, a one-time fee to purchase water rights would range from $500 to $3,500.
A fee structure will be developed as the water exchange is put in place and future homeowners start making transactions.
After the rule goes into effect, Loranger said, future changes would require a rule amendment, requiring public posting of a draft, getting public comments and Ecology’s final approval.
Cynthia Nelson, Ecology spokeswoman, said Ecology was aware that the Realtors were mailing out postcards.
She said Clallam County already is required under the Growth Management Act to determine water availability.
“And because of this GMA obligation, they need to make sure folks comply with the rule and mitigation requirement before issuing a building permit,” Nelson said.
Nelson said Ecology might adopt the rule in August, but more likely in September, and it would take effect 31 days after adoption.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-681-2390 or at [email protected]