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Drought Conundrums

Westlink Bridge at 1500 cfs (6-9-15)

Rocks are emerging out of the Spokane River as flows dropped from 4,000 cfs over the weekend to the 1,500 cfs shown here. (6-9-15)

You’d have to be a hermit to be unaware that Washington state is having a bad water year.    The winter of 2014-15 was very warm — 5 degrees F warmer than average.  It rained plenty, but snowed little.  And what snow there was is now mostly gone.

Spring runoff for most rivers came weeks if not months early, and rivers are now flowing at levels we’d expect to see in mid-summer.  Rivers need snowmelt to sustain flows throughout the summer.   Unless it rains, hot weather will cause an increase in water temperatures in streams and rivers.  Combined with low flows, river conditions will be hostile to salmon and trout species that need cold, abundant water to migrate and complete their life cycles.

Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temp Anomalies (NOAA 6_8_2015)

The 2015 El Nino – Pacific Ocean Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies as of June 8, 2015 (Graphic: NOAA)

And, it probably won’t rain.  El Niño, the ocean-warming phenomenon that drives weather patterns, is present in the North Pacific.  NOAA scientists are observing high sea surface temperatures – unusual for this time of year – and predicting an 80% chance that El Nino will last through the end of the year.

Washington State University’s Agriculture Weather Network translates the El Nino phenomenon into a prediction for Washington’s summer weather:    El Nino typically “leads to warmer weather and less precipitation across much of the Pacific Northwest.”

The bottom line:  Washington state is in the midst of a very serious drought.   And, there’s potential it will become a multi-year drought — similar to California.

Given all this, questions come to mind about water management in Washington state.  In some communities, it appears we neither recognize the dangers nor are responding in a logical fashion to the risks at hand.   One way or another, money appears to be a predominant factor in drought response.

70_Percent of your water use

No comment. (Graphic: waterwiseirrigation.com)

Question:  Why is it there is a major focus on getting emergency water supplies to farmers (especially in the Yakima River basin), but municipalities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane are either messaging “everything’s okay” or just not saying anything at all?  

Short Answer:  Summer is the big revenue season for municipal water suppliers (primarily because of residential outdoor irrigation).  Water purveyors do not want to signal that their customers should conserve because it will result in reduced revenue and hurt their bottom line.  Regrettably, rivers will be seriously harmed because of this ‘no-conserve’ message, which is being disseminated not just by the purveyors but also by the Dept of Ecology and the Governor’s office.

Question: Why did “junior” water users in the Yakima basin plant cherry and apple orchards and other perennial crops, even though they were fully aware they would have limited access to water during a drought?  

Short Answer:  Water users who hold “junior” or “interruptible” water rights are on notice that in a water-short year, their water supply will be cut.   When farmers with junior rights plant crops that cannot survive without regular irrigation, they are making an investment decision that involves substantial economic risk.   In reality, junior water right holders have been betting on a bail-out.  Per next item, they appear to be getting one.

ECY Drought Response Budget (ECY Website 6-9-15)

The Department of Ecology will spend millions of dollars to subsidize farmers who made bad choices about crop plantings, but only $25,000 on “conservation education. From Dept. of Ecology 2015 Drought website.

Question:  Why is the state spending millions of dollars in public subsidies for water mitigation for orchardists who are now destroying last year’s apple crops?

Short Answer:  Washington farmers are destroying large amounts of last year’s apple crop that they were unable to sell.  They blame the inability to ship to international destinations due to port slowdowns, but last year saw record apple over-production.   What are the chances that Washington state will subsidize apple crops this year that will be destroyed next year?  Indeed, the Department of Ecology is spending millions of dollars to underwrite drought leasing programs and emergency well use in the Walla Walla and Yakima River basins for agricultural users who hold junior water rights.

Washington’s Office of the Columbia River has spent nearly $200 million on water supply projects over the past 8 years, but very little of it has been directed toward water scarcity and drought response.  Instead, OCR has function more like the Office of Cadillac Desert, studying dams and other irrigation projects that, if built, will ultimately cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Question: Given drought conditions, why is the Department of Ecology issuing new water rights in areas where water supply is likely to be deficient?

Short Answer:  For the last 3 years, the state legislature has included a budget proviso requiring Ecology to issue at least 500 water right decisions each year or lose a half million dollars in budget.  This has converted the Water Resources Program into a permit factory.

One example of the ensuing folly is the proposal to issue water permits to illegal water users in the Nooksack River basin.  Agency resources for the type of water management activities critical for managing for drought have dwindled to negligible levels (e.g., metering water use, promoting water conservation, measuring available surface and ground water supplies, enforcing against illegal use).

Meanwhile, of the state’s nearly $10 million drought budget, only $25,000 is dedicated to “conservation education.”

As rivers recede, the 2015 drought promises to reveal many mysteries and closeted skeletons.    Who is making money off of drought?   How low can our rivers go?  The salmon life cycle is 2-4 years – how will the 2015 drought affect salmon returns in 2017-19?  Will farms go out of business?  Will farmers make more risk averse cropping decisions in the future?  Inquiring minds, stay tuned.

Sierra Exif JPEG


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Spokane River flows drop nearly 2,000 cfs in a single day

The gates have closed at Post Falls dam to ensure that Lake Coeur d’Alene water levels are maintained for boaters.

Meanwhile, flows have dropped nearly 2,000 cfs in the last 24 hours for the Spokane River.   The theory is that redband trout fry have emerged from their redds, and so there is no impact on fish.   These flows are fully controlled by Avista.

Link here to watch Spokane River flows in real time, and pray for the river.

 

Graph of  Discharge, cubic feet per second

 

 

 

ferndale-wa aerial (landsat.com)


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The Tale of the Nooksack Nine, or, the Rewards of Water Thievery

This is Part 2 of a series on Whatcom Water Insanity, covering illegal use of water in the Nooksack River basin.  See Part 1 here.  See paragraph at bottom for two post-publication corrections.

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ferndale-wa aerial (landsat.com)

Nooksack River wrapping around farms near Ferndale, WA. (Image: Landsat.com)

Just as California drought provides compelling lessons about the price – economic, social, and environmental – being paid for water mismanagement, we also have examples in Washington State.

Whatcom County is notorious as one of the most lawless water basins in Washington State.  For years, illegal water diversions from the Nooksack River have been reported in articles, conference presentations, legislative testimony and more.

And what’s crazy is that this illegal use has actually become an accepted modus operandi.  Nevermind that diverting water without a permit is a misdemeanor, or that stealing water causes systemic harm to the environment, including endangered fisheries and water quality.  Rather, there appears to be widespread agreement that illegal use of the waters of the Nooksack watershed is nothing more than business as usual.

No one has done anything about it – until now.  Unfortunately, what’s being done is dead wrong.

The Department of Ecology has claimed (for years) that it lacks the resources to identify and enforce against unpermitted water use in Whatcom County.

Nooksack chinook (NWIFC)

Nooksack Chinook running the gauntlet of low flows (Image: NWIFC)

In 2013, the Lummi Nation decided to assist on the data collection side of the matter.  Tribal staff floated the Nooksack River in the vicinity of Deming, Washington.   GPS readings were taken wherever a water diversion pump was found, then compared with the state water rights database.  Thirteen “unpermitted” users were identified.

Lummi Nation staff provided their data to Ecology.  Reasonable minds would expect Ecology to order these malefactors to cease pumping and pay penalties.  This seems particularly important in the Nooksack basin, where a clear signal needs to be sent to end water thievery.

But Ecology did not issue orders or penalties.

Instead, Ecology has decided to reward the illegal diverters by giving them permits.

Ecology has drafted a template to issue water rights to the Nooksack Nine.  Click here to view it.

Nooksack River percent days flows unmet (ECY 2015)This approach would be wrong in almost any circumstance, but it is particularly egregious given the condition of the Nooksack River.  The illegal users will be required to curtail their use whenever Nooksack River flows drop below what’s required in the Nooksack Instream Flow Rule.  As shown in the graph at right, during the irrigation season that happens between 50-75% of the time.

To ensure that water users comply with the terms of their permits, ie, curtail their use 50-75% of the time, requires enforcement.  But lack of resources is the very reason Ecology claims it cannot identify, much less stop, illegal water use in the Nooksack basin.  How is it that Ecology now has the capability to police these permits?

Ecology’s general lack of enforcement capability – particularly in the water resources realm – is well documented.   See, for example, Dan Chasan’s 2000 study, “The Rusted Shield,” or the Center for Environmental Law & Policy’s 2002 white paper, “Dereliction of Duty.”

Just this year, Ecology acknowledged on its website that its poor record of water rights enforcement is dissolving into non-existence.  For the last three years the Washington State Legislature has converted the state Water Resources Program into a permit factory, requiring it to process at least 500 water right decisions per year or lose $500,000 in budget.   As a result, “Ecology staff have needed to reprioritize and temporarily defer some work in other water rights categories including permit management, plan review, seasonal changes, enforcement, and technical assistance.”

So, Ecology will actually get credit for issuing permits to the Nooksack illegal users.

Nooksack River IRPP flows v fish flowsEven more problematic is that the illegal users will be taking water that is needed for fish.  The instream flows established in the Nooksack Rule, adopted in 1985, are out of date and scientifically unsupported.  These rule-based flows, even when met, are not adequate to protect salmon and other species.

Pursuant to the Nooksack (aka WRIA 1) watershed planning process, to which Ecology has contributed about $800,000, studies demonstrate that higher flows are needed for fish.  The graph at right compares the appropriate biological flows (in green) with the flows set forth in the rule (in red).

These flows are derived from studies that Ecology funded and concurred in.  So why is the agency issuing new permits conditioned only on meeting the lower flows?

The bottom line is that the Department of Ecology should not be issuing water rights that will drive the river toward the red line flow, and fail to preserve the ability to restore water to the green line flows.   Ecology especially should not be issuing new water rights to scofflaws who for years have stolen the public’s water.

This situation reveals the unseemly essence of Washington state water resource policy.  Every drop of water that can be justified as available – even under the thinnest of pretexts — will be allocated for out-of-stream use.  We see it not just in the Nooksack, but in river basins throughout the state.

The state’s “water grab” policy — combined with exercise of unused municipal water rights, water thievery and waste, and the depleting impacts of drought and climate change — will destroy the public interest and values in Washington’s rivers.  You don’t have to look to California to see the devastating consequences of a state mismanaging the public’s water.

This is the second article in a series focusing on water resource issues in Whatcom County, Washington.  Part 1 addresses the City of Lynden’s efforts to get the Legislature to change the law and “fix” its illegal usage.  Readers should also check out the superlative water & land use blog, Get Whatcom Planning.

We’ve made two corrections to this article since original publication.  First, the tribal survey of illegal diversions occurred in the Deming reach of the Nooksack River (not the Ferndale reach).  Second, the Department of Ecology contributed $800,000 toward watershed planning, not $2 million.  The other $1.2 million has been spent on post-planning technical work and instream flow negotiations.


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Whatcom Water Insanity Part 1: Lynden Water Stealing & Milk as “Foreign Water”

WRIA 1 Map (Dept of Ecology)

Nooksack Watershed Map (Dept of Ecology)

This is a story, the first of many, about water resource issues in Whatcom County.  Whatcom County is well known as a place where a lot of people and farms and companies steal water.  One of the water thieves is the City of Lynden.

 

Bald Eagles

Bald eagles fishing for salmon in the Nooksack River (Photo Seattle Times)

By water thieves, we mean farms, dairies, cities and anyone else who takes water out of the Nooksack River (including tributaries and connected groundwater), without a water right.   This is wrong – it is stealing.  It hurts the river and its salmon and steelhead and the shellfish beds in the bay.  However, for decades, rather than bring enforcement action to halt water stealing in Whatcom County, the state agency in charge – the Department of Ecology – has hesitated, stumbled, apologized and pretty much done everything it can to avoid dealing with the problem.

With respect to Lynden, the city’s latest plan to stop stealing water is not to actually stop stealing, or to adopt aggressive water conservation, or to purchase and transfer existing rights, or any other water budget neutral solution.  No, instead Lynden wants credit for the wastewater that the Darigold powdered milk plant is already putting into the Nooksack River a mile downstream of the City’s water treatment plant.

The problem with this scheme, however, is that it too is illegal.

  • Darigold doesn’t own its wastewater, and can’t transfer it to the City.
  • The wastewater is already in the river so the “offset” is illusory.
  • Even if it weren’t illusory, there’s still a mile of river (and salmon habitat) that would be de-watered.
  • The wastewater from the Darigold plant is not “foreign water” (see below for more on the amazing concept that milk is foreign water).

Given all this illegality, Lynden is now asking the WA Legislature to make it all good.  And amazingly, the Legislature is complying.  Senate Bill 5298 sailed through the Senate, and was heard in the House Ag & Natural Resources Committee on March 24, 2015 – and could pass out of the committee and on to a floor vote sometime soon.

So, just to review.  A city that has been stealing water and harming flows in the Nooksack River has asked the Legislature to change the law to allow it to get credit for wastewater that is already being put into the River.  And the Legislature is prepared to do it.

So, why is water stealing such a big deal?

Nooksack River IRPP flows v fish flows

Redline – WA state’s take on flows to protect Nooksack River instream values Greenline – Flows actually need to protect instream values.

First, there’s the river.   In 1985, the Department of Ecology adopted an instream flow rule for the Nooksack River.   However, these instream flows were a compromise and not adequate to protect fisheries.  The graph at right shows what flows are needed (green line) versus what flows are protected under the law (red line).

Nooksack River percent days flows unmet (ECY 2015)

Fascinating graph showing how often the rule-based instream flows are not met throughout the year.

And that red line is not reality. The flows that are supposed to be protected in the instream flow rule are in fact often not achieved.  So water stealing by Lynden (and others) really does hurt the river and its fish.

Second, the Legislature is rewarding a scofflaw.  And this is really bad policy, because there are quite a lot of water thieves in Washington – in Whatcom County and elsewhere.  If the Leg gives in on this one, where does it end?

Third, is the “foreign water” concept – the idea that the mitigation water from the Darigold plant is adding new water to the Nooksack River.  In western water law “foreign water” means water that is imported from another watershed.

But here, the Department of Ecology has determined that Darigold wastewater is foreign because it comes from the cows.  In other words, the cows drink Nooksack River water, and they produce milk.  But once the milk comes out of the cow, it’s foreign water.

Once you’ve had a good laugh about that, feel free to call your legislator and ask that they stop rewarding water thieves, including the City of Lynden, and oppose SSB 5298.

More laughs and lots of good information about water and land use in Whatcom County can be found at Get Whatcom Planning.

 

 

 


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Federal Court Rules on Spokane River PCB Cleanup Plan: Evict Fox from Chicken Coop

The Spokane River has the worst PCB pollution of any river in Washington state.  On March 16, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology have engaged in troublesome delay in studying and addressing the problem of Spokane River PCB pollution.

Of particular concern to the Court is the substitution of the “Spokane River Toxics Task Force” as an alternative to preparing a water quality cleanup plan (known as a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL) as explicitly required by the Clean Water Act.  The Court’s decision observes that the Task Force concept lacks metrics to determine “measurable progress,” lacks deadlines, indeed lacks any connection to creating a cleanup plan,and that there has been a “worrying lack of progress made with respect to scientific data” to determine where the PCBs are and how to clean them up.

What is this Spokane River Task Force?  It is a committee composed of Spokane River polluters* who have permits, issued by the Department of Ecology, that require them to participate in the Task Force rather than actually clean up the toxic pollution they discharge to the River.   The interlocal agreement establishing the Task Force commits the polluters (and a few third party hangers-on) to study the hell out of the Spokane River PCB problem.   Actual cleanup actions, however, are not required.

For example, the Task Force’s definition of “measurable progress” include “inputs” (attending meetings) and “outputs” (preparing reports, plans and studies).   Of course “outcomes” are also important – including reduction of toxics in the Spokane River – but there is nothing in the Task Force mission that requires the polluters themselves to reduce pollution.  Indeed, the very purpose of the Task Force is to allow the polluters to avoid responsibility for removing the toxics they discharge to the river.

The Court’s March 16 decision precisely nails the problem:

“The record indicates that the Spokane River has been on the 303(d) list since 1996 and after nearly 20 years still contains the worst PCB pollution in the state. Despite this known problem and Ecology’s prioritization of the Spokane River PCBs, a substantial percentage of the pollution sources remain unknown.”

“. . . it is significant that no effective limitations [on polluter permits] have been put in place by the Board and the only significant condition imposed by the Board has been that point polluters participate in the Task Force.”

“There comes a point at which continual delay of a prioritized TMDL and detours to illusory alternatives ripen into a constructive submission that no action will be taken. With the Task Force as presently proposed, Ecology is coming dangerously close to such a point, and with EPA’s support. Accordingly, the Court finds that the EPA acted contrary to law in finding the Task Force, as it is currently comprised and described, a suitable “alternative” to the TMDL.”

Strong stuff.   At its core, the Court recognizes that Spokane River polluters should not be in charge of deciding how much they are allowed to pollute.

Most importantly, the Court directs EPA and Ecology to come up with a PCB cleanup plan for the Spokane River in a reasonable time frame.   The agencies must report back to the Court within 120 days with:

“. . . a definite schedule with concrete goals, including: clear statements on how the Task Force will assist in creating a PCB TMDL in the Spokane River by reducing scientific uncertainty; quantifiable metrics to measure progress toward that goal; regular checkpoints at which Ecology and the EPA will evaluate progress; a reasonable end date, at which time Ecology will finalize and submit the TMDL for the EPA’s approval or disapproval; and firm commitments to reducing PCB production from known sources in the interim.”

After 20-plus years, a PCB cleanup plan is finally on the radar screen for the Spokane River.  Thanks is due not to the Department of Ecology or the Environmental Protection Agency, agencies that have failed to live up to their statutory duties (not to mention their very names), but to the checks and balances of our democratic system, and to a federal court that knows a fox when it sees one.

 

*Spokane River polluters in Washington include Liberty Lake Water & Sewer District Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant), Inland Empire Paper, Kaiser Aluminum, Spokane County Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant) and the City of Spokane’s Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant).  The use of euphemistic names for the sewage treatment plants is a common tactic used by municipal polluters to obscure public understanding of their activities.


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Grand Coulee Fish Passage Getting Attention

Salmon Chief Spokane Falls (Luke Wiley photo)The idea of salmon above Grand Coulee dam is getting a lot of attention these days, both artistic and scientific.  Naiads readers are encouraged take two actions:  (1) view the movie and (2) comment on the proposal.  Details below.

Naiads has previously reported on the intrepid Columbia River paddlers who traveled from Astoria, Oregon to Canal Flats, B.C. in the summer and fall of 2014.  They have just released a new film that examines the potential for salmon restoration through the lens of their journey.  The 35-minute movie, Treaty Talks: Paddling Up the Columbia River for People and Salmon, takes the viewer up the river and into the lives of the Spokane and Colville Tribes kids who carved the dugout canoes, along with many others who dream about and are dedicated to salmon restoration.

The Columbia Canoe Journey was undertaken by Voyages of Rediscovery, aka Adam Wicks-Arshack, Xander Demetrios, John Malik, and Jay Callahan.  It’s an inspiring and beautiful film.

The film was sponsored by Upper Columbia United Tribes or UCUT, a consortium of five tribes in the Upper Columbia basin that serves to protect and restore the natural resources of those tribes – covering 2 million acres and lands and waters located within the states of Washington and Idaho.

UCUT has been instrumental in promoting a serious policy discussion about salmon reintroduction above Grand Coulee dam.  See related posts on this blog discussing the Columbia River Treaty recommendations and other documents.

UCUT has now released for public comment the Phase 1 Plan for the Upper Columbia Basin Fish Passage and Reintroduction Project.  Comments on the plan are welcome and due to UCUT on February 27, 2015.   It’s a well-constructed plan that will

UCUT’s Phase 1 Plan follows on the NW Power & Conservation Council’s October 2014 adoption of the Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Program. The program plan calls for a phased approach to study and implement reintroduction of anadromous fish (salmon, steelhead, eels and other species) to areas where fish migrated historically, but which are now blocked due to dams and etc.

 

 


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Bambi in the Crosshairs

Deer in Park

Hunting in Washington state parks? You’re kidding, right?

The Washington Legislature will hold a hearing on Monday, January 26 on House Bill 1346, which would open Washington State Parks up to hunting.

This is a bad idea.  Washington state parks are havens for people and wildlife, providing important habitat and opportunities for passive wildlife enjoyment and nature recreation.

Beyond the recreational impact, Washington state parks are THE POSTER CHILD for agency budget cuts.  How the Parks & Rec Commission would be able to implement, regulate and protect public safety is a complete unknown.  HB 1356 has no fiscal note – apparently the proponents don’t understand the status of the agency’s cannibalized budget.

Readers are encouraged to comment to the House Committee on the Environment and their own state representatives.   The HB 1346 website has a link for easy submittal of comment.

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