Water Conservancy Boards: Questions and Answers

The basics

  1. What is a Water Conservancy Board?
  2. Why were boards established?
  3. What can boards do?
  4. What does it mean to change or transfer a water right?
  5. What water rights may a board transfer?

The application process

  1. How are applications submitted to a board?
  2. What does the application contain?
  3. What does it cost to submit an application?
  4. Can a board decide not to accept an application for processing?
  5. How can responsibility for processing an application previously filed with Ecology be transferred to a board?

Internal organization of a board

  1. Who serves on a board?
  2. How do boards operate?
  3. Are board decisions and records public records?
  4. How is a board funded?

The basics

1. What is a Water Conservancy Board? Back to top

Water conservancy boards (boards) are separate units of local government that process water right transfer applications within an identified geographic area.  A board can serve a single watershed, multiple watersheds, a county, or multiple counties. There are currently 19 boards operating in Washington.

Boards are established by a resolution of the county or counties that they serve. Ecology approves the county’s petition to create a board based on public interest and the need for a board.

2. Why were boards established?  Back to top

Boards were authorized by the 1997 Legislature, under RCW 90.80, to assist Ecology with the backlog of water right change applications.  The creation of boards enables the processing of water right transfer applications at the local level.

3. What can boards do? Back to top

A board has a variety of authorities, including:

Ecology evaluates all board RODs for compliance with applicable water law.  Ecology has the final review authority of each decision, and issues an administrative order to affirm, modify, or reverse the board's decision. Ecology’s administrative order can be appealed to the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

A board has no jurisdiction within the boundaries of a federal Indian reservation or on lands held in trust for an Indian band, tribe, or nation by the federal government.

4. What does it mean to change or transfer a water right? Back to top

There are a variety of terms used to describe various modifications of an existing water right, including “transfer," “change," and “amend." The Water Conservancy Board statute, RCW 90.80, authorizes the boards to process applications for “transfers."  The term “transfer” used in the context of conservancy boards is defined as follows:

Changes to the following elements of an existing water right can be considered:

Generally, a water right transfer cannot enlarge a water right, either by increasing the instantaneous or annual quantities, or the number of acres irrigated.

5. What water rights may a board transfer? Back to top

A board may transfer perfected water rights which are documented by state-issued water right certificates.  A right is “perfected” by the continuous beneficial use of water.

On ground water rights, a board may change:

Note: boards cannot change ground water rights that are exempt from the permitting process (RCW 90.44.050, Regulation of Public Ground Waters, Permit to Withdraw).

Boards can also transfer:


The application process

6. How are applications submitted to a board? Back to top

An application to transfer a water right is made on a formal application form provided by Ecology.  In addition to the form, the board may require additional information that they determine is necessary to process the application.  The board will charge a fee for the review and processing of the application.

7. What does the application contain? Back to top

The application is a standard form provided by Ecology.  It requires:

Boards may supplement the standard application form as necessary to process the application.

8. What does it cost to submit an application? Back to top

Each board sets its own fees to reflect the cost of processing an application.  Currently, the fees charged by boards vary from $250 to $1,450 per application.  Consult the appropriate board for further information. Fees

9. Can a board decide not to accept an application for processing? Back to top

Yes.  A board is not required to process an application.  If it votes to decline to process an application, the board must return the application to the applicant and inform the applicant to file with Ecology.  The board is not required to provide an explanation for declining the application unless requested by Ecology for more information.

10. How can responsibility for processing an application previously filed with Ecology be transferred to a board? Back to top

Any person who previously filed an application for transfer with Ecology may request a board with jurisdiction to process the application.  The applicant should provide a copy of the completed application to the board and find out whether the appropriate board has the interest and the current capacity to process the application.  The board, if it elects to process the application, will request the complete file from Ecology.


Internal organization of a board

11. Who serves on a board? Back to top

An established board consists of either three or five commissioners, and may have up to two alternates appointed by the county legislative authority.  Commissioners must be residents of the county(ies) of board jurisdiction or of an adjacent county.

Commissioners serve staggered six-year terms.  At least one commissioner must be an individual water right holder, while another must be a non-water right holder.  Counties must consider these criteria when a commissioner’s term expires and when appointing a new member to a vacant position.

Training requirements

There is no specified prior experience or educational background requirement to serve on a board.  All board commissioners and alternates must receive 32 hours of training from Ecology before taking action on a water right transfer application.  They must also maintain eight hours a year of continuing education.

Alternates

Alternates are also appointed for six-year terms.  They are subject to the same training requirements as other commissioners, and may serve as a replacement for an absent or recused commissioner.  When serving for an absent or recused commissioner, the alternate has the same authorities as the regular commissioner.

12. How do boards operate? Back to top

Boards are subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, Public Records Act (see next question) and conflict of interest laws identified in RCW 90.80.120 (Water Conservancy Boards -- Conflicts of Interest).

Open Public Meetings Act, RCW 42.30

All business conducted by the board must be at an open public meeting. Boards must announce their meetings, keep minutes, and record the votes of commissioners.  The Open Public Meetings Act applies to all deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, and evaluations conducted by a quorum of the board.  The public is allowed to attend any board meeting and the board may accept public comment.

Majority required for adoption of a decision

To conduct any official board business, a majority of board members must be physically present: two members of a three-member board or three members of a five-member board.  The adoption of a Record of Decision on an application to transfer a water right requires agreement of a majority of the total membership of the board.

Even though a board appoints a chairperson from among the commissioners, each commissioner has an equal vote in the business of the board.

Alternates may participate as a commissioner for an absent or recused commissioner.  They may not participate for a vacant position.

13. Are board decisions and records public records? Back to top

The records of a board are public documents and are subject to the Public Records Act.  Each board is responsible to respond to public records requests in accordance with RCW 42.17 (Disclosure - Campaign Finances - Lobbying - Records), which was re-codified in 2006 as RCW 42.56, Public Records.  The obligation of a board to respond to public records requests regarding a particular application file transfers to Ecology after the board has completed its business and sent the original documents to Ecology.

14. How is a board funded? Back to top

A board is an independently funded entity, which provides for funding as established by RCW 90.80.060(2) (Water Conservancy Boards -- Board Powers – Funding).  A board may establish fees for the processing of applications to transfer water rights to fund the activities of the board.  It may accept grants but does not have the power to impose a tax or acquire property through eminent domain.