Frequently Asked Questions - Quilcene-Snow Instream Resources Protection and Water Management Program

This page is being maintained as an archive of past information and will not be updated.

At Community Forums in Chimacum, Quilcene and Port Townsend, local citizens raised a number of important questions related to the proposed water resources management rule for the Quilcene-Snow watershed.  Ecology listened to your concerns, and compiled this FAQ in response.

Water management in the Quilcene-Snow Watershed

  1. What is an instream flow?
  2. What is an instream flow rule?
  3. What fish species are the flows are designed to protect?
  4. Are there threatened or endangered fish in the watershed?
  5. Why is water management needed in the Quilcene-Snow watershed?
  6. Why us and not urban areas such as Seattle?
  7. Will this rule affect existing water rights?
  8. Does setting instream flows mean that those levels will always be there?
  9. How will setting flows affect new water uses?

Setting instream flows

  1. How were the flow numbers determined?
  2. Why are the proposed instream flows sometimes higher than the flow in the stream?
  3. Why not set flow levels lower than the existing flows in the stream?

Reserves of water

  1. What is a reserve of water?
  2. Why are reserves of water being proposed for the Quilcene-Snow watershed?
  3. What will the reserves be used for? How were the reserves determined?
  4. Where are reserves of water being proposed?

How the rule could affect you

  1. If I am already using water, how will an instream flow rule affect me?
  2. If I want to build a new house, how will an instream flow rule affect me?
  3. In the future, will I be able to drill a permit-exempt well?

How the rule could affect farming

  1. Will this rule prevent farmers from using their existing water rights?
  2. Will farmers and other users be able to get new water rights for future activities?

Future water use

  1. Where will new sources of water come from?
  2. Will any sub-basins be closed?
  3. Will it be possible to get a water right after the rule is adopted?
  4. How will a rule affect pending water right applications?
  5. How is Ecology determining water needs for future growth?

Ground water issues

  1. How do we learn about ground water resources?
  2. What do hydrogeologic studies tell us about the Quilcene-Snow watershed (Water Resources Inventory Area, WRIA, 17)?
  3. The WRIA 17 technical assessment (2000) indicated that only a small percentage of recharge in the watershed is being used under water rights or by exempt wells. Since such a small percentage of recharge is being used, why is Ecology proposing restricting water use?
  4. What is the basis for Ecology’s general assumption that ground water used by wells will affect streams?
  5. What does the USGS conceptual model tell us about the Chimacum sub-basin?
  6. What will the upcoming USGS ground water flow model for Chimacum Creek tell us?
  7. Why isn’t Ecology waiting for the results of the USGS ground water model for Chimacum Creek before proposing an instream flow rule for the Quilcene-Snow watershed?

Legal authority

  1. What is Ecology’s authority for setting flows?
  2. What is Ecology’s authority for restricting permit-exempt wells? 

Water management in the Quilcene-Snow Watershed

  1. What is an instream flow?

    Stream flows are the amount of water flowing in a stream. A water right to protect a quantity of flow for instream resources is called an “instream flow.” 

    Instream flows are defined as the stream flow levels needed to protect and preserve instream resources and values, such as fish, wildlife and recreation. 

    Instream flows are intended to protect water for instream resources from new withdrawals.

     

  2. What is an instream flow rule?

    An instream flow rule specifies the amount of water needed at particular stream locations on a month-to-month basis.

    An instream flow rule is a water right for a stream. It has a priority date (effective date) just like any other water right.

    An instream flow rule also includes broader water management strategies. The rule is a water management tool to help ensure that adequate water remains in the watershed to meet the needs of people, farms and fish for generations to come.

     

  3. What fish species are the flows are designed to protect?

    The Quilcene-Snow watershed is home to several important fish species including Chinook, Coho, pink and chum salmon, and steelhead, coastal cutthroat and bull trout.

     

  4. Are there threatened or endangered fish in the watershed?

    Yes. There are four species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA): Chinook and summer chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout.

     

  5. Why is water management needed in the Quilcene-Snow watershed?

    We need to manage water in order to:

    Low stream flows in the late summer and early fall are longstanding problems, identified as early as the 1940s by the Washington State Department of Fisheries.

     

  6. Why us and not urban areas such as Seattle?

    Ecology has already established instream flows in 22 watersheds throughout the state, including areas of Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Thurston counties.

     The Quilcene-Snow watershed is a priority because it has:

    We anticipate completing instream flow rules for seven more watersheds over the next few years. Our goal is to set instream flows on all streams in the state.

     

  7. Will this rule affect existing water rights?

    No. The rule only affects water right decisions made after its adoption date. Therefore, it does not affect existing water rights, except to protect them from new uses.

     

  8. Does setting instream flows mean that those levels will always be there?

    No. Natural variations in rainfall and the use of existing water rights can result in actual flows being lower than the instream flows. Instream flow rules do not require that water be put back in streams. The rules are intended to protect flows from future water uses.

     

  9. How will setting flows affect new water uses?

    Since the watershed has chronic low flows in the late summer and early fall, instream flows will not be met at those times.  Therefore, unless specific provisions are made, there would be no new year-round (“uninterruptible”) water rights available.  For this reason, Ecology is proposing specific provisions to make water available to new users, with certain conditions of use. See the Q&A on future water use.

    In developing this rule, Ecology is considering the long-term needs of people, farms and fish.


Setting instream flows

  1. How were the flow numbers determined?

    Fish biologists from the state departments of Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife worked together with the WRIA 17 and 18 Planning Units to recommend the instream flow levels to be set in rule. In determining flow levels, they used a combination of:

    Flow levels that are beneficial for fish vary by season, species, and life stages.

    State fish biologists assess a stream’s natural hydrology (quantity) and hydraulics (water movement) and the needs of all species and life stages present at various times of the year. Instream flows are designed to protect the existing fish habitat. 

    Studies used to determine the flow numbers

     

  2. Why are the proposed instream flows sometimes higher than the flow in the stream?

    While the amount of water in the stream is considered when determining instream flow numbers, they cannot be based solely on existing levels. (Refer also to the next question.)

    State law is clear that instream flows must be set at levels that protect and preserve fish and other instream values over the long-term. It’s the amount of water the fish could use when it is there.

    Actual stream flow levels naturally vary throughout the year due to seasonal changes and water use. So the differences between actual flows and instream flows will also vary throughout the years.

    If the instream flow number is high relative to the average flow in the stream in summer, this does not mean that the instream flow number is wrong. Rather it means that the stream will provide more fish habitat in wet years than in dry years. Protecting the occasional “good water year” is needed to preserve a healthy population of fish. If we want to protect the habitat available in those rare wet years, then the instream flow needs to be set at that higher flow level.

     

  3. Why not set flow levels lower than the existing flows in the stream?

    An instream flow is not the lowest amount of water that has occurred in the stream according to stream flow records. State law is clear that instream flows are to protect and preserve fish and other instream values over the long-term.

    If an instream flow is set at an extremely low number so it can always be achieved during summer, then we can expect:

    Eventually the fish population would be destroyed.

    If the instream flow number is high relative to the average stream flow in summer, this does not mean that the instream flow number is wrong. Rather it is a red flag that signals the fish have barely enough water to survive, and no surplus water is available for new water rights if fish are to be protected.


Reserves of water

  1. What is a reserve of water?

    A reserve, or reservation, of water is a finite amount of water set aside for specific future purposes. Reservations usually have conditions of use required to access them.

     

  2. Why are reserves of water being proposed for the Quilcene-Snow watershed?

    A reserve would allow for new water uses that are not interrupted when flows fall below the instream flow levels set in the rule. (The water in the reserve is not “subject to” the instream flows.)

     

  3. What will the reserves be used for?

    Ecology is gathering input from the community on the allowable uses for this reserved water. State law, however, places a priority on water for domestic use.

     

  4. How were the reserves determined?

    Reserves are only appropriate for sub-basins for which Ecology, in consultation with the Department of Fish & Wildlife, can determine that setting aside a small amount of water will outweigh any negative impact on instream resources.

    The quantity placed in each reserve equals one to two percent of the low flow for a stream in a dry year. This will result in a one to two percent loss of available fish habitat about one year in ten, and less than one percent loss in years of average or high stream flow.

    How the reserves were determined - Ecology is working on an update to this paper

     

  5. Where are reserves of water being proposed?

    Map of these basins


How the rule could affect you

  1. If I am already using water, how will an instream flow rule affect me?

    The rule only affects water use decisions made after its adoption date.  Therefore, if you are already using water via a permit, certificate, claim, or permit-exempt well, the only impact of the rule is to protect your water supply from future water uses.

     

  2. If I want to build a new house, how will an instream flow rule affect me?

     Ecology is working on an update to this response.

     

  3. In the future, will I be able to drill a permit-exempt well?

How the rule could affect farming

  1. Will this rule prevent farmers from using their existing water rights?

    No. This rule, when adopted, will not affect existing water rights and will protect them from being negatively affected by new water uses.

     

  2. Will farmers and other users be able to get new water rights for future activities?

    Ecology is working with representatives of the agricultural community to explore water management strategies for agriculture.  This is the biggest challenge we are facing, especially in water-short sub-basins.


Future water use

  1. Where will new sources of water come from?

    Ecology and the WRIA 17 Planning Unit are working with the county and public water utilities to help acquire the resources and expertise to develop other reliable sources of water for new uses.  Options include:

    We are also working to set up a trust water-right program to make it easier to lease, purchase or donate existing water rights and saved water.

     

  2. Will any sub-basins be closed?

    A "closure" is a finding that no water is available for future appropriations.

    The rule would formalize the existing administrative closure of all perennial streams to new consumptive uses (uses that diminish the amount of water in the stream). The closures would exclude the reserves, and seasonal openings on Chimacum Creek and the Big Quilcene River.

    These closures are intended to maintain existing surface water resources and minimize future adverse impacts.

     

  3. Will it be possible to get a water right after the rule is adopted?

    Yes. You can get a water right after rule adoption:

     

  4. How will a rule affect pending water right applications?

    Pending water rights processed after the instream flow rule is adopted will have an effective date that is senior to the instream flow rule. However, the water right will be subject to the instream flows, meaning the use:

     

  5. How is Ecology determining water needs for future growth?

    Ecology is looking at population growth projection data to get an idea of water demand in the future. Ecology has found that growth rates, and actual population growth, is much higher in some sub-basins than others.

    This information helps Ecology, and the community, understand how long reserved water can last under different use scenarios. This will help in choosing water management options under the rule. 


Groundwater issues

  1. How do we learn about ground water resources?

    Understanding ground water – where it’s located, how much there is, how it moves through the ground and its connection to surface water bodies – involves the study of hydrogeology.  Hydrogeology (hydro- meaning water, and -geology meaning the study of the Earth) is the branch of science that deals with the distribution and movement of water below the Earth's surface.

    Hydrogeology investigations include the study of aquifers, which are underground layers of permeable rock or materials like gravel, sand, silt, or clay from which water can be extracted in useable quantities from a well.  Our knowledge of aquifers comes in large part from information recorded during well-drilling and measurement of water elevations in wells.  A thorough understanding of hydrogeology must also consider topography, rock type, soils, climate, vegetation, surface water features and geologic history, as well as land use and water management practices. Based on all these factors a conceptual model of the hydrogeology can be developed for a basin.  This conceptual model describes our understanding of the interactions of the various components of the ground water and surface water systems.  It can also be used to evaluate such things as the effects of ground water pumping.

     

  2. What do hydrogeologic studies tell us about the Quilcene-Snow watershed (Water Resources Inventory Area, WRIA, 17)?

    Data are available for developing our understanding of the hydrogeology throughout the watershed.

    For example, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) developed a conceptual model to describe the hydrogeology of the Chimacum Creek sub-basin.  (See also later responses on Chimacum.)

    Other portions of WRIA 17 have not been studied in as much detail, although much is known about the hydrogeology. A description of the hydrogeology for all of the larger basins in WRIA 17 is included in the WRIA 17 technical assessment (2000), completed for watershed planning.

     

  3. The WRIA 17 technical assessment (2000) indicated that only a small percentage of recharge in the watershed is being used under water rights or by exempt wells.  Since such a small percentage of recharge is being used, why is Ecology proposing restricting water use?

    Note: Recharge refers to water added to an aquifer, either naturally or artificially. It is true that the estimated amount of water withdrawals using water rights or permit-exempt wells is a relatively small percentage of the estimated ground water recharge.

    However, comparing estimated recharge to estimates of how much water is being withdrawn is not an appropriate or useful way to look at the amount of water available for out-of-stream use. A better way to evaluate the effects of future ground water uses addresses the question of what changes would occur as a result of well pumping. This question can be addressed by applying our conceptual understanding of the hydrogeology in the Quilcene-Snow watershed. Based on work by the USGS in the Chimacum sub-basin (discussed in later responses), most, if not all of the ground water withdrawals in areas like the Chimacum sub-basin will capture water that would otherwise contribute to flows in the streams.

    Applying that understanding, a much more relevant question can be posed, namely “how much decreased flow in the streams is acceptable from an environmental standpoint?” For more information, see the USGS “Sustainability of Ground-Water Resources”.

     

  4. What is the basis for Ecology’s general assumption that ground water used by wells will affect streams?

    When evaluating WRIA 17, Ecology found that each of the interior sub-basins (generally those with rivers or large creeks) functions largely as an independent system. Over the long-term, the amount of water entering these systems (mainly through rain and snow) is equal to the amount of water leaving (through surface water runoff and groundwater discharge to marine waters). If consumptive use within any of these sub-basins increases over time, the amount of water leaving the sub-basins will decrease. This conclusion is based on the law of conservation of mass.

    To some extent new consumptive uses could also reduce the amount of ground water stored in a sub-basin and this could result in declining ground water levels over time. However, in the long run our understanding of the hydrogeology tells us that if new well use within any of these sub-basins increases over time, this will result in decreased surface water flow or a combination of storage loss and decreased surface water flow.

    The Chimacum sub-basin provides a good example of how well use in the Quilcene-Snow watershed interior sub-basins will likely affect streams. (Discussed in the response to the following question)

     

  5. What does the USGS conceptual model tell us about the Chimacum sub-basin?

    Note: The main Chimacum sub-basin aquifers are the source of ground water for domestic and agricultural uses.

    There are low permeability layers within the Chimacum sub-basin ground water system. However, similar water levels between wells of various depths imply that extensive confining units do not occur above the thick layer of clay found below the productive aquifers. In other words, the Chimacum sub-basin essentially acts as one large unconfined system that exchanges water with Chimacum Creek.

    This conclusion is supported by mapped ground water elevations and flow directions for the sub-basin that indicate ground water generally flowing toward and along Chimacum Creek. During the summer months, almost all of the flow in the creek comes from ground water discharge. This is typical for most of the streams in western Washington that are not controlled by reservoirs or fed by snow melt.

     

  6. What will the upcoming USGS ground water flow model for Chimacum Creek tell us?

    The USGS is now in the early phases of developing a computer model of ground water flow in the Chimacum sub-basin. This model will provide a complex, 3-dimensional representation of the interactions of the ground water and surface water systems. The model should be useful for comparing various water withdrawal alternatives, in order to identify options that may have the least impact to Chimacum Creek. It may also be useful for evaluating potential ground water storage or other mitigation alternatives. The model will not provide information regarding what instream flows should be established for Chimacum Creek.

    The ground water model will be designed and calibrated using existing data, primarily the conceptual model of the Chimacum Creek sub-basin that is described in the USGS 2002-2005 investigation report.

     

  7. Why isn’t Ecology waiting for the results of the USGS ground water model for Chimacum Creek before proposing an instream flow rule for the Quilcene-Snow watershed?

    After the USGS ground water flow model is complete, Ecology will adjust its understanding of the hydrogeology of the sub-basin - if necessary.  However, since the model will be constructed based on an existing hydrogeologic characterization of the Chimacum Creek sub-basin by the USGS, there is no reason to believe that it will significantly change our current understanding of the sub-basin.  Therefore there is no reason to delay the rule-making process in order to wait for the results of the model.


Legal authority

  1. What is Ecology’s authority for setting flows?

    Authority for setting flows is derived from state laws. The primary statutes relating to flows and flow setting are:

  2. What is Ecology’s authority for restricting permit-exempt wells?

    In the state Ground Water Code, the “ground water permit exemption”  Chapter 90.44.050 RCW allows for certain uses of small quantities of ground water without obtaining a permit from Ecology. While exempt from the permitting process, these withdrawals are still subject to all other state water laws.

    Authority for restricting ground water uses, which includes permit-exempt well use, comes from state statutes and court decisions, including:

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