Citizen Journalism: Ecology Open House on proposed WRIA 1 Changes, April 22, 2019

In Hirst Decision, News by CTNW News

Dozens of citizens gathered at the Ferndale Library on Monday, April 22, 2019, to discuss the Dept. of Ecology’s proposed rule changes for new domestic groundwater wells in Whatcom County. The latest version of the proposed changes would limit withdrawals from new wells to 500 gallons per day for indoor domestic use.

Ecology is now in charge of rulemaking for WRIA 1 – the Water Resource Inventory Area that includes the Nooksack River basin and Lake Whatcom – to meet the requirements of the Streamflow Restoration Act (ESSB 6091, now RCW 90.94). Ecology took over the rulemaking process after local governments failed to write a Watershed Management Plan Update by the Feb. 1, 2019, deadline. The plan provides a “roadmap for addressing water quantity, water quality, in-stream flow, and fish habitat challenges.”

During the public open house, representatives of Ecology listened and answered questions about the proposed limits on new wells, and discussed how people can comment and make their voices heard. Ecology’s Annie Sawabini, who is leading the rulemaking process, said: “folks have a lot they want to share with us, so we’re looking forward to seeing those comments.”

People wanted to know why Ecology wants to limit withdrawals to 500 gallons per day for domestic indoor use and outdoor use, including watering of gardens and lawns and farm or domestic animals. The law previously allowed an annual use limit of 3,000 gallons per day.

Sawabini said RCW 90.94 gives Ecology direction to consider lowering the withdrawal limit if a Watershed Management Plan Update isn’t passed by the WRIA 1 Planning Unit by the deadline. “It’s very clear that it tells us to consider lowering it, so we took that as direction to consider lowering it,” the lead rule-maker said.

The Rule Supporting Document handed out by Ecology gives a background history of the rulemaking process and the Department’s reasoning behind the proposed withdrawal limits. It says one of the factor’s they looked at was the law’s requirement of offsets to achieve a Net Ecological Benefit (NEB). “The greater the water use,” it says, “the greater the required offsets and projects/actions needed to achieve NEB.”

Other factors in the decision included WRIA 1 planning discussions, permit-exempt water use limitations in post-2001 instream flow rules, availability of water for new permits in the watershed, and typical household water use. Sawabini said they also looked at other rules in different watersheds.

“It’s a policy call and ultimately the group made the call,” she said. “No one person made the call. The group that made the decision: this is what we think is appropriate for this basin and we would like public feedback on it, so we put it out.”

The WRIA 1 Planning Unit consists of 5 initiating governments – Whatcom County, Public Utility District No. 1, City of Bellingham, Lummi Nation, and Nooksack Tribe – as well as non-government caucuses. But the City and the Tribes refused to participate in the Planning Unit process or attend any of the meetings, essentially dooming the process to failure.

Whatcom County Council member Satpal Sidhu was at the open house. He spoke about the missed opportunity to prevent Ecology from getting involved in the water planning process.

“We had some opportunity before. All this crowd had together back in June-July-August of last year to make an influence. We had it in our hands that whatever we write they’d have nothing to do with it. And now we are fighting our own government. Whatever case needed to be made we needed it to be made within ourselves – in our own house,” Sidhu said. “The outcome is we didn’t agree. Now we have to listen to them.”

Another new change in the draft proposal is a modification to one of the exemptions for a permit that would allow re-timing of high water. “In some streams around here, they are closed year-round, and they have a lot of water in the winter that potentially could be re-timed to benefit stream flows in the summer when they’re very low,” Sawabini said.

There’s also include new language stating: “The department reserves the right to require metering and reporting of water use for domestic users, if more accurate water use data is needed for management of water resources in the area.” However at the Feb. 22 meeting of the Watershed Management Board Sawabini specifically said “we are NOT going to be considering metering.”

Ecology is collecting written comments on the Preliminary Draft Rule Amendment and Rule Supporting Document from April 8 to May 10, 2019, through its online eComment system and through the mail.

Submit online comments at:

Submit comments by mail to:

Annie Sawabini
Department of Ecology
Water Resources Program
PO Box 47600
Olympia WA 98504-7600

Ecology anticipates finishing the proposed rule amendment in Nov. 2019 and then starting another public comment period. It will hold public hearings in Jan. 2020. The law says the rulemaking process must be finished by Aug. 2020.