With the deadline for approval approaching, the Washington Department of Ecology is still hard at work on the new Dungeness Water Management Rule. Agency Director Ted Sturdevant says they have a lot of important work left to do.
The agency had hoped to adopt the rule formally this month, but with 940 public comments on the rule that require responses, and a few very important questions to answer, agency officials have been required to rethink that deadline.
Under state law the agency must promulgate the rule by Dec. 3 or withdraw it. The law also precludes making major changes to the rule before it’s approved.
The rule will put into place a new regulatory regime covering much of rural eastern Clallam County, “closing” much of the Dungeness Basin to new water uses. It would largely do away with the permit exemptions that now allow those who drill a well within the region to enjoy the resulting water at no cost.
Agency officials have long said that under the rule those who plan to drill a new well, and those who put the water from an existing well to a new use, would be required to purchase “mitigation water,” mostly likely through a water rights exchange. Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire says it may be possible for the state to make a bulk purchase of water rights and is pushing Ecology to work toward that end.
The agency has a draft funding request for the Dungeness Basin that with the governor’s approval it will file with the Legislature during the next session. It includes a request for approximately $2 million for establishing water impoundments and recharging the shallow aquifer. It also would provide some funding for “water source substitution,” which may include, for example, leaving water in the river and using reclaimed water for irrigation instead.
Another $300,000 is slated for the outright purchase of existing water rights, most likely from the Sequim-Dungeness Water Users Association, which this week signed a memorandum of agreement with Ecology establishing the availability of rights for sale.
All of these projects would create mitigation water that theoretically could be purchased by new water users in the basin.
Clallam County currently has $100,000 to purchase water rights, and the Washington Water Exchange, the nonprofit that will run the water bank, has another $350,000 for “hydrating the exchange.”
Agency officials estimate that $450,000 will “provide mitigation water for approximately 180 new homes in small basins who opt to purchase mitigation package for outdoor gardens and landscapes.”
Ecology Southwest Regional Director Sally Toteff said the funding ensures there will be mitigation water available from “day one.”
McEntire, who has served as the commission’s point man on the rule, said he was pleased to see Ecology had included $300,000 for the purchase of mitigation water in the draft budget.
He also indicated that he sees it mostly as a token effort, a way of opening the door to more funding, and toward ensuring that new Clallam homebuilders aren’t solely responsible for the purchase of mitigation water.
“I understand how the budget works: the governor proposes, the Legislature disposes. This is far from being over,” McEntire said. “We’re about at the second inning. I’m going to use every bit of energy I have to make sure that landowners are held harmless.”
Sturdevant agreed the issue of using state funding for a bulk purchase of mitigation rights isn’t settled. “We’re working through the budget proposal, deciding how to put together the best package to serve all the competing interests.
“What’s appropriate and how do you get there? And what kind of precedent does it set?
“We don’t have a clear answer yet.”
Sturdevant said many of the decisions are within the purview of the Legislature. He said he’s working with Sen. Jim Hargrove to help answer those questions.
“How do we divvy it up? That’s the question. We’re dealing with that now.”