SEATTLE — It’s hard to imagine a fight over water in Western Washington. But in the rural Dungeness Valley on the Olympic Peninsula, known for its lavender fields and namesake crabs, the debate has been fierce over how much water land owners, irrigators, Native American tribes and others can use while still keeping enough in streams for threatened fish.
The tug-of-war over water that has unfolded in arid regions of the West over the years is now playing out in this rural community. State regulators recently restricted new groundwater use in the area to ensure supplies for future use and sufficient flow in the Dungeness River and its tributaries for salmon and other natural resources.
“This has been many, many years in the making, because a lot of the water supply solutions that we came up (with) here were crafted by” local leaders, said Dan Partridge, a Department of Ecology spokesman. The rule goes into effect Jan. 2.
Under the new rule, property owners will have to buy credits to offset new water use from individual wells starting Jan. 2. That requirement drew plenty of protest at public hearings this year.
“People make an investment in their well and their property,” said Marguerite Glover, who owns a real estate office in Sequim with her husband, Clarence. “All those people who bought retirement property, they expect that they’re going to be able to use those wells.”
Glover grows vegetables on her 3-acre hobby farm. Under the new water rule, she would have to buy water rights from an exchange if she wants to add a new use, such as outdoor greenhouses, a swimming pool or to supply an outbuilding.
Property owners who are served by a public water supplier, are using a well or have a building permit issued before Jan. 2 won’t be affected.
“It’s still going to have an impact on the quality of life,” Glover said, adding that water taken from these so-called permit-exempt wells makes up a small fraction of overall water use. “One of my big concerns is that there are some areas where people won’t be able to buy water for outdoor uses. In a rural area like this, that’s huge.”
Property owners in rural areas who aren’t hooked up to public water systems are currently allowed to draw up to 5,000 gallons a day through so-called permit-exempt wells. Those people pay fees to drill the well but enjoy the water at no cost.
The dispute over water here echoes more contentious battles in south Skagit County and Upper Kittitas County, where the state has closed some areas to new groundwater withdrawals, unless that new water use is mitigated.
In the Upper Kittitas County, property owners who want to take water from a permit-exempt groundwater well must buy water rights from a so-called water exchange or water bank to mitigate their water use. A water bank connects willing sellers of water rights with buyers.
Last year, the Department of Ecology closed a basin in the lower Skagit Valley to new groundwater withdrawals after new development depleted water reserves more quickly than expected, effectively halting construction in the area. The department is working to find alternative water sources using $2.2 million from the Legislature.
“We see what happened in the Dungeness as a model of what water management in the state needs to become,” Partridge said, noting the cooperation and collaboration from local water users, including irrigators, tribal members and others, in making the water rule happen.
“This process that produced this new rule is far preferable to fighting out water rights in a court of law, which is far too common in Washington state,” he said.
Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire said this week that the new rule tries to balance the needs of residents with natural resources. W. Ron Allen, Jamestown S’Klallam tribal chairman, praised the ecology department’s decision to protect important natural resources.
State officials say there isn’t enough water in the Dungeness Valley to go around and that the water is over appropriated. The shortage is particularly acute in the late summer and early fall when irrigators and fish need it most. Fish tend to spawn in rivers during that period. Low stream flows have contributed to declines in four threatened fish species, according to ecology department officials.
Partridge said the state department is providing Clallam County a $100,000 grant to help property owners offset the cost of purchasing water credits for new indoor domestic use, estimated at $500 to $3,500. Property owners can apply for $1,000 each.
The grants will be available during the first six months of the year. The ecology department is asking the Legislature for $2.05 million in the 2013-15 capital budget to continue those grants.
Much of the new water for the water bank will come from the Dungeness Agricultural Water Users Association. Local irrigators have voluntarily agreed for years to stop diverting water from the Dungeness River when flows fall below a certain level to compensate for limited water for fish. They’ve agreed to continue to reduce flows during critical weeks in August and September.