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Before You Take Too Much Water, Make Sure It's There

Billy Frank, Jr.
5/16/11

A basic rule of natural resources management today is that you don’t take too much of something unless you have a good idea how much there is to begin with. That was the point behind the Squaxin Island Tribe’s effort to protect water resources in the Johns Creek watershed, and a Thurston County Superior Court judge recently agreed. (See "Court Rules that State’s Inaction Hurting Johns Creek Salmon.")

The tribe had petitioned the state twice in two years to stop water withdrawals in the Johns Creek basin until scientific information could be gathered to determine impacts from the multiplying wells. The state said it just couldn’t do that. Budget problems, they said.

For as much as we don’t know about how much water is available in the small Johns Creek watershed, there’s no doubt that the creek is mostly fed by groundwater in the basin. Flows in Johns Creek have dropped steadily since records started being kept in the 1950s, and every year the shortage has increased.

Since 1984 when its stream flow was formally protected, more than 200 “permit-exempt” wells have been drilled close to Johns Creek. State law allows these wells to be drilled without a permit and pump up to 5,000 gallons of water a day. Decades ago this type of well provided homeowners and others with easier access to water. Today those wells number in the thousands in western Washington and more are being drilled all the time.

“While we seek cooperation first in all of our natural resources management efforts, there are times when we must go to court to protect our culture and treaty rights.” That’s what my friend, Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the Squaxin Island Tribe, had to say.

He’s right; this was one of those times. Our treaty rights include the right of protection of natural resources. We will not stand by as those rights and resources are threatened.

The Legislature should provide the necessary funding for the state department of Ecology’s water resources mapping and assessment program. The money would be used to create comprehensive maps that would allow more science-based decision making about water availability. This would help avoid the kind of litigation that Squaxins were forced to take.

The fees necessary to support such an effort would add only about $200 to drilling a well, a small amount when you consider the investment in a new well is often more than $10,000. A couple hundred bucks per well isn’t too much to ask for the kind of information we need to make responsible decisions about how much water we’re taking out of the ground.

About half of all us who live here in Washington rely on groundwater for our drinking water. That’s a lot of people who deserve to know how much water they have. The Legislature should help make that happen.

Billy Frank, Jr., is Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

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