By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
The three Clallam County commissioners Tuesday sought public input to formulate an official response from the county on the state Department of Ecology’s preliminary water management rule for the eastern half of Water Resource Inventory Area 18, or WRIA 18.
WRIA 18-east extends from the Bagley Creek basin — about halfway between Port Angeles and Sequim — to the entrance of Sequim Bay northwest of Blyn.
All told, 28 citizens spoke for 21/2 hours.
“There’s nothing like the word ‘water’ in the subject line of a press release or an agenda item to bring the crowds out,” said Commissioner Jim McEntire, while thanking the 50 or so who attended.
“Today, in my view, is an opportunity for us, as your county commissioners, to be better informed as to the comments that we might want to make, if any, to the department on the preliminary draft rule that’s available on the Department of Ecology’s website.”
The preliminary water management rule, also known as an in-stream flow rule, is available at www.tinyurl.com/yj95yj6.
Ecology defines in-stream flows as the stream flows, measured in cubic feet per second, needed to protect and preserve waterway “resources and values, such as fish, wildlife and recreation.”
Ecology is accepting public comments on the draft rule through Feb. 17.
Limits on new wells
Most of those who testified Tuesday said they live in the Dungeness Valley, and most said they don’t like the proposed rule because it would limit the amount of water that can be drawn from new wells.
Dungeness River flows drop rapidly in August, when tributaries and the main stem are fed almost entirely by ground water, Ecology officials have said.
Irrigators and gardeners need water the most at the same time that threatened fish — including the Dungeness chinook, summer chum and bull trout — need water to spawn.
“The amount of water that’s taken by these exempt wells is negligible,” said Steve Marble of the Sequim area.
“It can’t be measured.”
Marble said salmon populations are more influenced by oceanic conditions than in-stream flows.
“I have difficulty understanding how the water from my well — I’m 50 feet down — goes uphill,” said Jeff Killian of Sequim.
“I’ve never seen water go uphill by itself to affect the water level of the Dungeness River or the closest creek to my house, which is over a mile away,” Killian added.
“I oppose the current recommendation.”
The issue was fresh on the minds of those who attended open houses on proposed changes to water management in the Dungeness River basin last week.
Robert Crittenden of Sequim said there are “serious flaws” in the various studies that led to Ecology’s proposed watershed rule.
But Michael Blanton, North Olympic Peninsula watershed steward for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency supports the in-stream flow rule “in order to preserve ecological processes and functions within the basin.”
Ann Wessel, Ecology in-stream flow rules coordinator, took notes during Tuesday’s testimony but did not address the audience.
Kaj Ahlburg of Port Angeles — a retired Wall Street lawyer and past president of the Port Angeles Business Association — said Ecology would require minimum flows that, in some cases, have been achieved less than 10 percent of the time.
He said Ecology makes “crucial assumptions” not supported by peer-reviewed science about the effects of wells on aquifers.
Ultimately, Ahlburg urged Ecology to look at other options, such as reservoirs that store water during runoff and release the water to boost flows in the late summer.
Shelley Taylor of Port Angeles — a former TV actress and founder of the now-defunct Citizens for Predictable Property Tax Now — said the proposed water rule would have unintended consequences, such as people running their well pumps to maximize capacity when the water isn’t needed.
New homeowners who want to water their lawn or garden would have to buy water credits from the Dungeness Basin Water Exchange.
The Washington Water Trust is working jointly with Dungeness basin stakeholders, Clallam County and Ecology to develop this water exchange.
The state will meter or find a metering partner to help enforce the new regulations, if approved later this year.
Irrigators with longtime water rights would keep their water rights under western water law, said Shirley Nixon, a Port Angeles attorney who specializes in water law.
Not strong enough
Nixon said the proposed rule “is not strong enough in protecting the resource.”
“We need to have some faith in what your staff has done over the years and quit fighting it,” Nixon told commissioners.
“It’s easy to say that ‘it’s junk science, it’s junk science,’ but the science is there, and it’s credible,” she said.
“The failure to resolve water allocation and management in the Dungeness will lead to more conflict with newcomers,” she said.
“This rule protects everybody in this room if we’re using water,” Nixon added.
“What it’s going to impact, however, is any newcomers that come in. This is a function of the fact that the water law is senior-appropriated.”
Nixon said Ecology is trying to prevent a “train wreck” of neighbors suing each other over water by managing the resource in a responsible way.
“I would like the county to not stand in the way of this rule,” Nixon said.
Dick Pilling presented a letter on behalf of the Port Angeles Business Association that said Ecology is “proposing a number of significant, even draconian, limitations on the water usage” in the name of protecting fish.
“In the opinion of many, however, DOE [Department of Ecology] has proposed a solution in desperate search of a problem,” Pilling said.
“But there is no problem, and moreover if there was, DOE’s proposed solutions would have little impact on it.”
Speaking for himself, Pilling said the watershed plan was based on 20-year-old data.
“We should determine if we’re acting in the name of real science, some science or merely political science,” he said, drawing applause.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners remanded the public testimony to county staff to formulate a response to Ecology.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.