Instream Flow photo identifier

Instream Flow


Ria Berns

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Skagit River Basin - water supply : Developing solutions


The Governor directed Ecology (through Engrossed Senate Bill 6589, signed April 1, 2016) to study the possibility of storing water to provide non-interruptible water supplies to permit-exempt well users in the Skagit Basin. Ecology partnered with Washington State University’s Water Research Center to develop a feasibility study. We also worked with Department of Health, Skagit County, Tribes, and non-municipally-owned public water systems in Skagit County on this study.

The study is in response to Engrossed Senate Bill 6589, which states:

  1. The department of ecology, in cooperation with the state department of health, Skagit county, tribes, and nonmunicipally owned public water systems in Skagit county, shall conduct a study to examine the feasibility of using effectively sized water storage to recharge the Skagit river basin when needed to meet minimum instream flows and provide noninterruptible water resources to users of permit exempt wells within the Skagit river basin.
  2. The department of ecology must submit a report of the study's findings to the standing committees of the legislature with oversight of water resources and fiscal issues by December 1, 2016.
  3. This section expires on December 1, 2016.

Water availability zone

In January 2017, we informed Skagit County about a 56-square-mile water availability zone near Bayview where we believe mitigation for new water use is not required. Our mapping and investigations of the area show that groundwater there flows to saltwater and would not impact the protected Skagit River. Homes located in the zone that were built on the now-invalidated reserve of water may now be considered to have a legal water supply. It also appears that Skagit County could issue land-use permits in this area based on determinations that adequate water supply is legally available. We have not made any determination regarding whether a water right permit application could be approved in this area.

Contact Skagit County if you have questions about getting a building permit in this area.

Current water supply situation and how we got here

Water for new year-round uses is currently very limited in the Skagit River Basin, primarily due to an October 2013 Washington State Supreme Court decision (“Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v Department of Ecology”).  The Court invalidated Ecology’s 2006 amendment to the Skagit Instream Flow Rule (WAC 173-503), which reserved small, finite amounts of surface and groundwater (“reservations” of water) for future year-round out-of-stream uses.  The Court ruled that Ecology exceeded its authority in creating these reservations.

Without these water reservations, new uses of water (i.e. uses started after the effective date of the original Skagit rule, April 14, 2001), including permit-exempt wells for Text about reservations household uses, would have to be stopped (interrupted) when instream flows are not met.  These instream flows are intended to provide protection to the ecosystem of the Skagit watershed. In most years Skagit River flows will not meet the flow levels prescribed in the rule, mainly in the late summer and early fall months.  And an “interruptible” water supply generally cannot be used for household water supply, which requires a continuous supply of clean water.

The Swinomish decision also created legal uncertainty for the water use by the approximately 480 homes and businesses that have relied on the water reservations since adoption of the 2001 rule. These are water uses established between April 14, 2001 and October 3, 2013 from the reserves.

So where does all this leave Skagit Basin property owners?

If you own property in this basin, one of these four situations describes yours:

  1. Water users that established water use before April 14, 2001: the rule and subsequent ruling does not affect the legal status of your water use.  You may remodel or replace existing structures.
  2. Customers of public water systems: the rule and subsequent ruling does not affect the legal status of your water use.  You are all set!
  3. Water users that established water use between April 14, 2001 and October 3, 2013: you are subject to regulation.  However, Ecology is exercising its enforcement discretion and not stopping the water use of the homes and businesses that rely on the 2006 reservations.  We continue to look for water supply solutions for those affected by the 2013 ruling.
  4. New water users (those establishing a water use after October 3, 2013), there are options available immediately.

What about long-term water supply solutions?

Ecology began exploring options for new water sources for Skagit Basin property owners long before the Swinomish court decision.  We continue to work with local governments, Tribes, water utilities and landowners to develop sustainable water supplies in the Skagit basin.  Some of the long-term supply solutions being explored are:

  • Water banks: acquiring senior water rights to use for mitigation (i.e. leaving water in the river to offset the impacts of the withdrawal on the river)
  • Storage (storing water when it is plentiful to be used when water is scarce).
  • Extending public water supply service areas.
  • Shallow aquifer recharge (SAR): Releasing water to replenish groundwater supplies.

More information on each option.

Water supply for new uses (post-October 3, 2013): options currently available to property owners

As Ecology works with local stakeholders to find new, sustainable sources of water, there are options available right now.  For new water users (those establishing a water use after October 3, 2013), there are several ways to potentially get water for new legal water use in the Skagit Basin:

  • Connect to a public water supply.  These are sources of water with a water right that is senior to the April 2001 instream flow rule, such as the Skagit PUD or a municipal water supply.
  • Store water in a cistern.  You can collect rainwater and use a cistern for storage. In addition, delivered water may be an option depending on your location.  Please consult with the Skagit County Planning and Development Services at 360-416 1320 or Snohomish County Planning and Development Services at 425-388-3311.
  • Drill a well in a location that has no impact on the river.
    • A number of residences have already been approved, where it was shown that groundwater withdrawals did not affect the Skagit or its tributaries.  These typically were located very low in the watershed with groundwater flowing directly into Puget Sound. Mapping of areas where new wells would not impact the river is underway.  Contact the Skagit County Planning and Development Services staff at 360-416-1320 for more information.
  • Use a well and mitigate (offset) the impact of the water use on instream flows.  Propose your own mitigation plan to Ecology, and demonstrate how you will offset the new use.
    • Ecology has approved a mitigation plan for Sun Peak Estates in Snohomish County which benefits 11 properties.  This development is part of the Fisher Creek subbasin, which has been closed to new uses since June 2011, when the water reservation there was used up.

Rainwater collection

In 2015, Skagit County Public Health began approving rainwater collection (also referred to as “rainwater harvesting”) for potable use.  Potable water is water that is safe for drinking and food preparation, and is regulated by local and state health departments.  There are a number of legal restrictions that apply to potable water use from rainwater collection systems.

Collecting rainwater is allowed under Ecology policy, and not restricted by the rule.  It is an option that could be immediately available to property owners in the Skagit Basin.  Rainwater collection is best suited to indoor water use only, although there are ways to expand usage to include outdoor irrigation.

For more details on rainwater collection, depending on your location, please contact the Skagit County Planning and Development Services at 360-416 1320 or Snohomish County Planning and Development Services at 425-388-3311.  You can also visit our rainwater collection  website.

Hauling, or transporting, water to your home is also possible.  There are private companies that will deliver water.  This option is more complicated to set up because of public health concerns.  Please consult your local health department.

The Skagit PUD, with funding assistance from Ecology, has installed two self-serve bulk water filling stations where customers can purchase large volumes of water.  These can be used to supplement rainwater.  The filling stations are located in Conway and on Bow-Hill Road.

Exploring long-term water supply options

In 2012 (and re-appropriated in June 2013), the Legislature approved $2.5 million in funding for efforts to find water solutions that balance the needs of the natural environment and those of people in the Skagit Basin.  To date, we have used this money to study the expansion of public water services and at the feasibility of water banking.  There is money still available for water purchases or other projects that will support long-term, sustainable water supplies for the Skagit River Basin.  We are exploring a wide range of options, several of which are described here.

Developing water banks

Text about reservations

Ecology has contracted with Washington Water Trust, a non-profit organization with experience in developing and administering water banks, to develop regional mitigation options for the Skagit Basin.

Purchase of water rights near Mt. Vernon:  In October 2013, Ecology completed the purchase of three water rights from the Big Lake Water Association, a public water system near Mount Vernon.  Ecology owns approximately 15 acre-feet of water for mitigation purposes and 18.56 acre-feet of water for stream flow enhancement.  We are currently developing a mitigation plan, which would identify the area that could be served.  This will likely be homes below Big Lake.  We are also working on how the mitigation process would work.

Potential purchase of Skagit River main stem water rights: We are also in discussions with public utilities that hold senior water rights on the main stem of the Skagit River.  We are working on a hydrogeological analysis to determine how many parcels could benefit from this mitigation water.  These would be parcels in which withdrawals from permit-exempt wells would mainly impact the Skagit River main stem.  Water banks are being developed but not ready for use at this time.  Information will be posted as soon as it becomes available.

Expanding public water supply

Ecology commissioned two in-depth studies of existing municipal water systems in the Lower Skagit River tributaries to determine if those systems could provide water for new uses.

In the first study, the RH2 Engineering Firm evaluated nine public water systems in the region and identified five potential projects that would provide water for growth in the Carpenter-Fisher and Nookachamps subbasins.  The reservations for these two subbasins were used up/close to being used up in June, 2011.  The projects identified include:

  • Direct water service expansion in the upper reaches of the Nookachamps and Carpenter-Fisher.
  • Indirect water service by piping municipal supplies into the upper reaches of Fisher, Carpenter and Nookachamps creeks, offsetting the use of wells downstream.  Preliminary cost estimates for these projects range from $700,000-$12,000,000.

The total cost estimates indicate that the least expensive projects are those that use public water supply for mitigation.  If implemented, these options would provide relief for some, but not all, property owners in these subbasins.  The biggest expense is the length of the water main needed.

The second study assessed municipal water rights upstream of Sedro-Woolley.  It focused on the status and availability of water rights for further consideration. The study identified:

  • Five water systems that may be capable of expanding their service. Substantial infrastructure upgrades may be needed.
  • Fifteen smaller scale water systems could supply water to an additional 633 connections within their existing service areas.

Cost is the major consideration for water service expansion.  A rough estimate puts possible waterline extensions in the tens of millions of dollars.  Where funding for these projects would come from is not known.  Many areas where direct water service expansion would be needed do not have a lot of people.  This may not be a cost-effective option.

Shallow Aquifer Recharge (SAR)

Shallow aquifer recharge projects to provide water for mitigation have been considered in the Skagit Basin.  Suitable sites are a possibility in portions of the Lower Skagit.  The Upper Skagit watershed is generally dominated by bedrock, limiting the likelihood of suitable sites.

Many elements need to come together for SAR to be a viable option. These include:

  • Proper geology
  • Land available for lease or purchase
  • Water availability must be reliable and consistent.  In areas where SAR would depend on high flow events or stormwater runoff for recharge, water supply could vary considerably over a year, and from year-to-year.
  • Reliable operation and maintenance facility that could run indefinitely.
  • More information about shallow aquifer recharge.

Skagit River Basin Stream Flow Enhancement/Groundwater Mitigation Program.  In 2014 the Upper Skagit Tribe proposed a wetland recharge SAR project in the Fisher Creek subbasin.  The subbasin has been closed to new un-mitigated uses since 2011.  A technical study of the area showed that there would likely not be enough water captured to meet the needs of property owners during years of low precipitation.  There were three public hearings on the proposal.  Property owners of possible sites did not express an interest in selling their property and there was little community support.  The project proponents decided not to pursue the project.