Ecology looks at charging more for water rights work.

New Ecology report recommends active water management to reduce reliance on taxpayer funding; ensure adequate water

The key takeaway in this press release seems to be that because of the cutbacks due to the economic downturn, it will cost more for those that want to develop water rights and drill new wells, irrigation ditches, and expand water supplies for mainly rural towns. Likely this will hurt farmers (small farmers in particular), and developers who want to build projects like the recent cluster project in Sequim. According to the report, the backlog for water rights approval is at a staggering 7,000 applications  (!) The report also states that “The era of cheap abundant water is over in Washington”.  And regardless of what you believe the causes of climate change are,  state scientists are finding that the climate change that is happening is leading to more water scarcity and possible shortages.

It’s also worth nothing that many critics of the current government are railing for “smaller government” as a rallying cry for ousting the current lawmakers. This story clearly shows that we are already getting smaller government in this one department of our State, and it is not working well. Demand for services is up, legal challenges by people who feel that they are not getting what they want are up,  staffing is down, and because of all of that, we will be putting the costs directly on the consumers of this service, rather than spreading the costs among the entire tax base. It remains to be seen how this will affect the work being done on WRIA, which is about managing in-stream flows. That work, up to now, has been a high priority for DOE. It might end up being another unfunded mandate of the Legislature, that we (county residents) will have to pay for ourselves. We might end up being taxed to have the State do this work. That remains to be seen and is not mentioned in the press release or the report.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) is seeking legislative authority to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state Water Resources Program and reduce the program’s reliance and impact on taxpayer funding through the state general fund.

Ecology’s new report on water management reform and funding recommendations for the Water Resources Program is now available online: “Water Resources Program Functions and Funding Structure–Recommendations for a Sustainable and Efficient Program.” Ecology was directed to issue the report this month to the Legislature and the governor under state Senate Bill 6267. The Water Resources Program’s ongoing mission is to work with Washington communities in support of sustainable water resources management to meet the present and future water needs of people and the natural environment. Population growth, the need for economic development to spur job creation, and the need to protect and restore fish runs are increasing the demands for water at a time of finite water supplies.

“We have been directed by the Legislature to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our water management services at the same time budget cuts and staff reductions are reducing our ability to fulfill our mission,” said Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant. “Our report to the Legislature and the governor provides some timely recommendations on switching Water Resources from reliance on taxpayer funding to a fee-based system where those who benefit from water management services pay more of the costs of those services.”

Ecology is proposing to re-focus the Water Resources Program in order to pursue active water management by:

Providing more efficient water management services and reducing litigation costs.

  • Reforming water right review and relinquishment (“use it or lose it”) provisions to encourage conservation.
  • Developing science-based water budget tools to help state and local decision-makers see alternative water futures, so they can implement the changes needed to realize a sustainable water supply for the state’s environment and its economy.
  • Actively seeking water supply alternatives to support the economy and restore stream flows for salmon, agriculture and communities.

The Water Resources Program currently receives 83 percent of its funding from taxpayers through the state general fund. Since 2007, the program’s biennium budget has been reduced by about $5 million and 20 staff positions. The program’s staffing level is now below that of 1993.

With the slow economic recovery in Washington state, the program’s ability to effectively deliver water management services to farmers, landowners, communities, and others will continue to be diminished – making Ecology’s water reform proposals all the more urgent.

This week, Gov. Chris Gregoire directed state agencies to cut general fund appropriations by 6.3% across the board. Water Resources is one of the many state programs that will be affected.

The demands for new water supplies are increasing in Washington state due to:

  • Projected population growth of 1.7 million people within the next 20 years – the equivalent of three cities the size of Seattle.
  • The need for water as an essential ingredient for economic vitality and job creation.
  • The need to protect and restore fish runs because of Endangered Species Act listings for some species of salmon or trout in nearly every watershed in the state.

Climate change is already also creating water supply challenges that will only increase in the future. University of Washington scientists predicts that many areas of the state, such as the Yakima Basin, will experience a higher frequency of water shortages, especially during late summer months.

Ecology’s report to the Legislature recommends that Washington adopt the “beneficiary pays” principle with those who receive the benefit from Ecology’s water management services. For example, those who request a water right would pay more for the work involved in evaluating and issuing the water right. Washington state lags behind California, Oregon and British Columbia in requiring users of water resources services to pay for the services.

Ecology will be accepting comments on the report to the Legislature through September 28, 2010. The comments will be compiled into a supplement to the report. Comments should be sent to Barbara Anderson, Water Resources Program, at

In addition to commenting directly on the report, the public is invited to join the discussion about the issues surrounding water resource management by participating in the Water Smart Washington Online Forum.