BURLINGTON — A pilot project to store and release water could give landowners in the Carpenter-Fisher sub-basin the ability to build on their properties.

The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is sponsoring the study of a possible project in the Fisher Creek sub-basin that would store water during times of high stream flow in the Skagit River. The reserved water would be released during drier periods to increase water flow and offset landowner use.

An October 2013 ruling by the state Supreme Court reverted current law to a 2001 rule that established a certain water level for the Skagit River. The ruling left thousands of landowners without a clear, uninterruptable source of water.

The tribe brought together an interagency review team Thursday, made up of stakeholders including the state Department of Ecology, Skagit County, Puget Sound Partnership, Anacortes Public Works, Washington Water Trust and two landowners to begin a review to see if the Fisher Creek sub-basin project is feasible.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, which filed the lawsuit leading to the Supreme Court ruling, and state Department of Fish and Wildlife both sent word they could not attend Thursday’s meeting but are interested in the project and plan to participate in the future.

The issue in the Skagit Basin is not the total quantity of water but the timing of when it flows, said Upper Skagit Tribe attorney David Hawkins. The project aims to increase stream flows during low-flow periods by releasing water saved during high-flow periods.

Hawkins said the tribe is trying to lead a project that will preserve both fish and property rights, a difficult balance, he admits.

If the project is deemed to be feasible during the initial study phase, landowners may be able to purchase mitigation credits to account for how much water they draw from their wells. The fees would support the monitoring and maintenance of the water storage and recharge program.

Both the Upper Skagit Tribe and Ecology hope the project may work not only in this sub-basin but in others areas of the Skagit River basin, as well.

“We’re really interested in seeing if this project can be expanded into other areas,” said Jacque Klug, water resources manager for Ecology. “It offers a lot of opportunities to improve flows, especially in the tributary basins.”

A few examples of similar projects exist elsewhere in the state, including in the Walla Walla basin and a proposed program in the Dungeness basin, she said.

The first phase of the Fisher Creek project is a technical review to find out where the storage and recharge could work and how many property owners could benefit.

The tribe has hired technical consultants including hydrogeologists and are consulting with a fish biologist, Hawkins said.

The tribe said it expects a draft mitigation plan to be available for review and public comment by March.

Joe Mentor of Mentor Law Group, which is representing the Upper Skagit Tribe, said the groups are mindful of the fact that many people are unable to build in rural Skagit County, and they want to move this project quickly.

“People want mitigation, and they want it now,” he said. “They don’t want to wait and watch us play it out over two years.”

The project is being funded from a state grant given a few years ago to investigate water storage projects in the lower Skagit River basin. About $319,000 has been allocated for investigative design, according to a grant agreement between Ecology and the Upper Skagit.

Funding for construction would come from the sale of mitigation credits, according to a summary of the project released by the tribe.

There are 520 potentially buildable lots in the Carpenter-Fisher sub-basin in Skagit County, most of which are unable to get water, according to a 2007 county analysis.

Ecology is pursuing other mitigation tactics, including acquiring water rights and other storage projects, Klug said. It is focusing on trying to get mitigation in the main river stem and get water rights purchased from the Big Lake Water Association reallocated to well users in the Nookachamps sub-basin, she said.

The team will meet to hear technical updates on March 27 and May 22. More information can be found on Ecology’s website.

— Reporter Rachel Lerman: 360-416-2145, rlerman@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Rachel_SVH, facebook.com/RachelReports

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