The fight for water rights

As drought related issues continue, water becomes gold

Farmers in the area will likely have to cut back on water usage

John Whittlesey/Observer

Farmers in the area will likely have to cut back on water usage

Matt Escamilla, Staff Reporter

Without water, nothing can survive, especially in the green Pacific Northwest. With drought seemingly on the horizon, local government entities have begun evaluating water rights rules.

They are doing so to make sure residents are able to go about their lives without worrying about water resources.

In an article by Natasha Geiling on, Washington Governor Jay Inslee was quoted saying, “We’re really starting to feel the pain from this snowpack drought. Impacts are already severe in several areas of the state.”

The same sentiment was shared by Bambi Miller, who co-owns Parke Creek Farm in Ellensburg. Miller works at the Ellensburg Farmer’s Market during the summer and fall months.

“What are we going to grow? [With a drought,] nothing,” Miller said. “No produce, no money.”

Hilary Huffman of Huffman Farms is in her third cropping season.

She mentioned that they had to start the planting process two weeks earlier than normal, in the beginning of June. The farm used a greenhouse and soil additive that binds the roots and retains water to help lessen the burden.  

The water shortage has forced local entities to reevaluate the regulations on water rights.

It took seven years for the logistics to get worked out into an agreement, and the new regulations will become official on Dec. 2, 2015.

Under the old agreement, individuals only had to disclose their water usage on the mainstream supply line, however that’s going to change next month.

The new agreement will force residents to disclose their water usage, not only on the mainstream, but tributaries (side channels and creeks) as well.

“The Kittitas water project is going to protect the environment and senior rights will be protected,” said Tim Trohimovich, director of planning & law at Futurewise, a statewide public interest group that works to encourage sustainable farmland.

In order for the public to agree to any new regulation, people must be educated about what it entails.

“Most businesses, farmers, etc. who are exposed to the regulations for the first time are initially upset,” said Paul Jewell of the Board of Commissioners Office of Kittitas County. “But as they begin to understand the program and the other alternatives, most are accepting, if not begrudgingly so.”

It’s important to understand the difference between junior and senior water rights and the implications they have on prospective owners.

According to Kittitas County Public Health, senior water rights are available to any landowner who purchased land in Kittitas County prior to May 10, 1995. These water rights holders have the most access to groundwater.

Junior water rights holders, on the other hand, have to purchase excess water from senior water rights holders if they wish to use more than their allotted amount.

Miller and Cox both have junior rights.

Jewell also said a review of the water rights is on track.

“The settlement agreement that the county signed with regard to groundwater resource management with the Department of Ecology and Futurewise is working well,” Jewell said. “We immediately implemented the ‘interim measures’ regulations as required by the agreement and have met all of our obligations to date.”

Jewell added that the county agreed that mitigation would be required before groundwater for domestic or commercial use was implemented. He added that water use is estimated to be 800 acre-feet consumptive.

In regards to offset residential development, the county acquired 800 acres of water and are purchasing senior rights from individual owners.

In turn, the water will be put into the state’s water trust to support instream flows in the Yakima River basin. The total cost of the project could be anywhere from $100,000 to millions of dollars.

“The County has purchased some water to date but we have not completed enough purchases to provide the 800 acres of mitigation,” Jewell said. “According to the agreement, the County has ten years to fulfill that obligation.”

Even with an agreement in place, that doesn’t mean problems won’t arise in the future.

Especially for water users such as Suncadia, which has three full golf courses which take plenty of water to maintain.

“While there are other mitigation water banks that are following the proper process and steps similar to Suncadia’s water bank, there are, unfortunately, others who are taking risky shortcuts,” said Paul Eisenberg, senior vice president of development for Suncadia Resort.

Eisenberg said that Kittitas county is not being as diligent as it should be.

“The county is not performing the impairment analysis for its program, which means that a harmed senior water right holder can take action to immediately shut down the operation of such wells that impair their more senior water rights,” Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg warned that without more consideration on the part of the Kittitas county, things could go down hill.

“The county makes no guarantees that its certificates will actually allow the wells to continue to operate, and it will not defend challenges to individual wells,” Eisenberg said. “Lenders will begin to ask deeper questions and refuse to provide loans for these risky mitigation banks as soon as these curtailment actions begin to occur.”