Conversations on Washington's Future
Water for Washington's Future
Message from the Director
Ted Sturdevant, Ecology Director
Water is Washington’s lifeblood. It is key to our economic growth and fundamental to our agricultural and fishing industries. The force of our rivers drives turbines that provide the Northwest with energy. Washington’s rivers and streams are vital to the survival of the region’s iconic salmon as they migrate and spawn. Our lakes and rivers provide stupendous recreational and aesthetic benefits. In short, water is integral to our quality of life.
It once seemed that there was plenty of water to meet all of these needs, but we are coming to grips with the fact that water isn’t in infinite supply.
Some underground aquifers are dropping dramatically from overuse in many parts of the state. In too many areas, salmon populations are in decline without enough cool, clean water in the stream at critical times of the year. More frequently, the snow we expect to accumulate in the mountains will come down as rain instead, resulting in earlier runoff and less water available in the summer months.
These problems will become even more noticeable as the state’s population grows by an anticipated 2 million people and changes in climate and snowpack become more pronounced over the next 30 years.
All of these needs — fish, farms, energy, growth, recreation — are important. And when valid needs are all interested in the same limited resource, it creates a recipe for heightened tension. That tension can lead to big fights, with winners and losers, or to an impasse. For far too long, conflicts and gridlock over water have defined our state’s history.
But tension also presents an opportunity for something exciting — balanced and durable solutions where everyone wins.
The key to progress is stepping back and recognizing that we all want prosperity
and a healthy environment. No one wants a world where there is community growth, but no fish, and no scenic areas to rest our bodies and souls. No one wants a world with scenic lakes and rivers, but no jobs.
The good news is that’s not a choice we have to keep making. Instead,
we have the responsibility and the opportunity to create balance: a water future that meets the needs of local communities, farms
It’s doable, and we are seeing it work on both sides of the Cascades, even in areas where streams are low for part of the year and all of the water rights have been spoken for.
Washington is seeing “water wins” through partnerships where all interests — irrigators, environmental organizations, businesses and local, state, tribal and federal governments — come together to work out solutions that all can agree on and benefit from.
Meeting the needs of multiple interests is complex, it takes more time, and it can require years and significant resources to fully accomplish – but the end result is solutions that have broad support and serve our collective quality of life for generations to come.
Here are some examples:
The Columbia River — When the Washington Legislature passed the Columbia River water management bill in 2006, it established a new principle — that rather than fighting over existing flows in the Columbia, let’s find new water and share it with all interests — for jobs, people and fish. People came together to develop compromise solutions because they all had something to gain.
As a result, Ecology's Office of Columbia River has developed water supplies that will support thousands of jobs, add billions of dollars to the tax base, and provide thousands of acre-feet of water for fish and streams. That proactive approach has transformed the landscape, both literally and figuratively, in Eastern Washington.
The Dungeness Basin — Many local partners, working hand-in-hand with Ecology, are developing a suite of actions for this water-short basin that support sustainable agriculture and protect critical fish species without interrupting future development. Key to these efforts is a memorandum of agreement I recently signed with the Dungeness River Agricultural Water Users Association. The agreement recognizes the Association’s effective conservation efforts, identifies how much water it will have available to sell or lease to the community to offset new water uses, and provides a cushion for changing irrigation needs. To get a flavor of what collaborative water solutions are accomplishing in the Dungeness,
see this video.
Olympia-Lacey-Yelm-Nisqually Tribe — The City of Olympia was interested in changing its drinking water source from McAllister Springs, near the Nisqually Indian Reservation, to an underground water supply. Doing so would require less maintenance, lessen regulatory requirements, and lower the risk of contamination to the water supply, while allowing for growth in coming decades. At the same time, both Lacey and Yelm were seeking water to accommodate expected growth over the next 20-30 years.
Thanks to a collaborative effort that involved many partners, a solution was reached that not only helps the City of Olympia attain its goal, but also helps secure the long-term water future in this limited supply basin for the Nisqually Tribe and the City of Lacey. The proposal is designed to: protect the health of the Nisqually and Deschutes rivers, Woodland Creek and Lake St. Clair; restore and improve habitat for fish and other species; and preserve the culturally significant McAllister Springs, the site of the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty. Also on the table is a plan to secure water for the City of Yelm over the long term.
The Yakima River Basin — a diverse water workgroup with representatives from federal, state, and local governments and agencies, irrigators, environmental groups, and the Yakama Nation, put aside decades of conflict and came up with an integrated plan to benefit all basin interests, from fish to farms to local communities. This plan is a national model and overcomes decades of conflict.
The Walla Walla — A decade ago, portions of the Walla Walla River would go completely dry, creating hardships for farmers and making it impossible for fish to migrate. Irrigators, tribes, environmentalists and others in the watershed knew local solutions had to be found, and they were willing to work together to accomplish that. This spirit of cooperation resulted in legislation in 2009 that provided the Walla Walla watershed with an unprecedented opportunity to address local water management challenges in a new way through the “Flow for Flexibility” pilot program. The program encourages water conservation by allowing local water users to choose where and when the water is withdrawn, how it is conveyed, and how it is used to augment stream flows for fish.
The program is implemented through a voluntary local water management board (the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership) with the support of Ecology, local water users, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and state and local leaders. To address the intertwined problems of low stream flows, endangered fish populations and competing water demands, the partnership uses tools such as water banking, agreements not to divert water, and water-for-water mitigation.
Collaborative, multi-interest efforts are challenging and sometimes costly. They require respect for other’s interests, and they take time and persistence. But they are transforming our state, and promise a more durable quality of life for all of us.
To learn more about innovative water management, see: