The Little Spokane River Watershed - Resource Conservation Planning

This is the fourth in a series of four articles about watershed planning efforts in greater Spokane River watershed. This article highlights the history of water resource management efforts in the Little Spokane River watershed.

Two things I've definitely learned in the past few years as a water resource professional: there are many people in this community who are very passionate about water resources, and, a lot of them live in the Little Spokane River basin. I'm continually impressed with those engaged individuals who give their time and effort so generously to preserve and protect the environment they love. Their deep emotional attachment to the watershed is inspiring.

The watershed planning process is both challenging and invigorating. People from all walks of life, and who are passionate about water, agree to cooperate and make plans for a better future. They listen and learn and share ideas. Their mission is difficult: to agree on how to sustainable manage the most precious of natural resources to meet the competing needs of a growing population, all while protecting and maintaining the natural attributes of the watershed. It's a heavy lift.

In fact, water resource management has been an ongoing process in the Little Spokane River watershed for nearly 50 years, far longer than any other watershed in the county.

There's a humorous saying that's well-founded in history: “whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting”. Indeed, conflicts over water use in Little Spokane River basin date back to the late 1960's. As a result, in 1974 the Washington Department of Ecology stepped in and initiated the Little Spokane River Water Resource Management Program, one of the first of its kind in the state.

The effort included a thoughtful analysis of the physical characteristics of the watershed and forecast the needs for human uses, fisheries, and recreation. A robust public participation component was included. The result was the “Water Resources Management Program – Little Spokane River Basin, August 1975”. The program developed 'minimum instream flow' values to protect the river, sustain fisheries, and preserve other beneficial uses such as agriculture, recreation and aesthetics.

These minimum flow values were eventually adopted into a rule and now guide water resource decision making in the watershed. The rule also established a priority date for the Little Spokane River, essentially giving the river a water right with seniority over subsequent water rights. That is, any water rights established after the rule date will have to shut off if/when the river flow falls below the minimum flow.

Stream flows in the Little Spokane River now routinely fall below those minimum flow values, and as a result the state has not issued any new water rights in the Little Spokane River basin for many years. An exception is made for so-called 'permit-exempt' water wells for individual domestic use. Permit-exempt domestic water wells are the norm in areas outside of municipal service areas; they are the only source of water for thousands of residents in the primarily rural Little Spokane River watershed. This apparent disconnect has become an issue of statewide significance in watersheds like the Little Spokane, where new water rights are not available. More on that to come.

Let’s fast forward to the early 2000's, and the second round of watershed planning in the basin. Funded by the Legislature and led locally by Spokane County, the primary purpose of the collaborative effort was to identify strategies meet the water resource needs in the Little Spokane River basin for the next 30 years. The watershed plan was adopted in 2005 and included numerous recommendations to promote water conservation and reuse, and to support policies that augment river flows, protect native fisheries and promote recharge of aquifers. It also sought to better quantify the impacts of the proliferation of permit-exempt wells in the watershed.

But the plan created more than just recommendations. The plan was the basis for the creation of additional tools to help planners better understand and manage the water resources. Among those tools is a report titled, “Spokane County Water Demand Forecast Model, CDM/TetraTech, January 2011”. The model utilizes the most recent population forecast from the SRTC and provides regional planners with detailed information about anticipated additional water use throughout the county. Of note, based on population projections the model predicts that water use from permit-exempt wells in the Little Spokane River basin will increase by nearly 40% by 2040.

Another exciting watershed planning tool is a report titled, “Potential Wetland Project Sites – WRIA 55 and 57, PBSJ, April 2009”. This report identifies and prioritizes 130 sites throughout the Spokane River and Little Spokane River watersheds where wetlands have been drained and could be restored. Approximately 6,000 acres were identified, with most of that area in the Little Spokane watershed. This report has the potential to be a template for land conservation/wetland restoration projects for years to come!

And finally, in response to legal challenges in other areas of the state, Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties are currently in the process of creating a water bank in the Little Spokane River watershed. This effort is intended to address the possibility of future regulatory constraints on the use of existing and new permit-exempt wells in the watershed. The basic function of a water bank is to facilitate the transfer of senior water rights between willing buyers and sellers. The process involves purchasing a water right and placing it in a trust, then dividing it into smaller rights, and making it available to willing buyers who currently use or plan to use a permit-exempt well. A similar water banking process is already underway in a number of counties in the state, including the Spokane River watershed. Likely, these water banks will become increasingly common throughout the state in the coming years.

The Little Spokane River watershed has a lengthy history of water resource planning, and the local stewards have been involved since the very beginning. To all you watershed planners out there, I salute you! Watershed planning activities provide an opportunity for citizens to weigh in, and public participation is crucial in the development of the management policies. After all, it is the peoples’ water.

I encourage you to visit our web page, www.spokanecounty.org and follow the links to Water Resources to learn more about water resource planning activities in Spokane County.

It's been a pleasure to report on the status of watershed planning in the greater Spokane River watershed. I hope you have enjoyed these articles. As always, don't hesitate to contact me at rlindsay@spokanecounty.org if you have any questions or comments. See you in the watershed!

Rob Lindsay is Water Resources Manager for Spokane County Utilities as well as an INLC board member

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35 W. Main Ave., Ste. 210

 Spokane, WA 99201

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