OTIS ORCHARDS, Wash. — The Washington Department of Ecology doesn’t expect a proposed instream flow rule in the Spokane River to impact existing water right holders.
Ecology representatives Rusty Post and Keith Stoffel spoke at a meeting of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights about the proposed rule.
The rule establishes measuring points on the river and how much flow is required at various times during the year.
Stoffel said the rule is intended to provide Washington with legal standing in the event of an interstate dispute with Idaho over ownership of water in the Spokane River and Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie aquifer system, shared by the two states.
Idaho has an instream flow rule and has nearly completed its adjudication process, in which the state determines the validity of water rights. Washington’s efforts are farther behind, Stoffel said, and the adjudication process is at least two years from beginning.
“We think the Spokane River and aquifer in Washington needs a voice, and the way you get that voice for the river is passing an instream flow rule, which is essentially a water right for the river,” Stoffel said. “All water rights out there today will be senior to the instream flow rule, and the rule will not apply to them.”
The rule does not apply to individuals with existing wells in their yard, Stoffel said.
The rule only applies to properties within the boundaries of the aquifer.
There are 20 municipal water districts providing water to people within the footprint of the aquifer, Stoffel said.
He doesn’t expect to issue any new water rights for agricultural use after the rule is put in place. The municipal districts have plenty of water on their existing water rights that they could use to serve someone who wants to put in a new well for agricultural use, he said.
“Anyone who owns a parcel of ground on the footprint of the Spokane aquifer should be able to get water from the existing water rights,” he said, citing the water rights in the portfolio held by municipal water providers.
For the few pieces of property not served by those providers, the department hopes to acquire enough water rights to offset future use of permit-exempt wells, he said.
The department hopes to present the proposed rule to the public shortly, Stoffel said. It would be subject to public review, meetings and comment. The process takes a year. Ecology ultimately will decide whether to implement the rule.
Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart says he has experience with instream flow rules from his county.
“If they craft it in a way that addresses exactly the pictures they’ve showed today, I am confident that ag will be protected,” McCart said. “But the devil’s in the detail — let’s look at the language (of the rule) and make sure. But I’m comfortable we’re headed in the right direction.”
McCart recommends farmers review the draft rule language and make sure their questions are answered, making changes to allow any area agriculture to remain viable.