MOUNT VERNON — Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki requested Monday that a state water supply task force study the needs of agriculture water users in the Skagit River watershed.

Also at the task force meeting, which included state legislators and water stakeholders, the state Department of Ecology presented new studies and task force members debated how to move forward with recommending research.

From the county’s perspective, Janicki said the task force has an opportunity to remedy a problem created by the 2001 Skagit Instream Flow Rule, which prioritized water for fish over new residential and agriculture uses.

The county has put in place a process to give rural residents access to well water through mitigation, so Janicki asked the task force to focus on agriculture.

Farmers currently do not have uninterruptible water access, she said, meaning they most often can’t withdraw water from the Skagit mainstream during the summer when it is most needed.

Janicki said agriculture needs a relatively small amount of water to remain viable. She estimated less than 2 percent of the minimum required flow, or 200 cubic feet per second, is needed.

“You have the ability to figure out what the best fix would be,” Janicki told the task force. “The county’s point of view is really to slightly turn the direction and make the focus on agriculture.”

The water supply task force was created in the 2018 state capital budget to review water needs related to agricultural uses, domestic uses and instream flows as well as to develop and recommend studies.

It can analyze gaps in data, update and reconcile data, complete missing data and install groundwater monitoring stations.

Unless extended, the task force expires June 30, 2019.

In 2018, the task force’s efforts focused on the upper Skagit River watershed. On Jan. 1, it can expand to the lower watershed.

The capital budget also allocated $500,000 to Ecology to evaluate current and future water demands in the upper Skagit River watershed.

Dave Christensen, program development and operations support section manager in Ecology’s Water Resources Program, presented the department’s intended studies and asked that the task force fund the same research for the lower Skagit River watershed.

Christensen said the department’s studies will include identifying what water is being used where, estimating the impact of permit-exempt wells, finding disconnections in tributaries and developing a habitat quality metric that can be used to prioritize conservation and mitigation projects.

At the request of task force members, Christensen said he will provide plans for the studies so members can comment on them over the next few weeks. The comments will be posted on the task force’s web page.

State Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Woolley), the task force’s co-chair, stressed the group’s purpose is not to find solutions, but to gather information.

“The purpose of the task force is to provide framework and correct information that we all agree with, that we all think is true, and to go forth with it and make policy decisions,” Wagoner said.

Agriculture will become a more central focus of the group’s meetings in 2019 when the discussion expands to the lower watershed, Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium Executive Director Jenna Friebel told the Skagit Valley Herald.

The majority of the county’s farm land lies in the lower portion of the watershed.

“It’s really the economic heart of ag,” she said.

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