Thanks to a partnership with Seattle City Light, the state Department of Ecology is now providing 340 property owners with a legal water source and has the capacity to provide water for about 1,000 more.
“It’s huge. It’s a really good, major step,” said Ria Berns, Ecology’s Water Resources program manager for the Northwest Region. “It doesn’t solve all of the water availability challenges in Skagit basin, but it is a huge step forward toward providing relief to homeowners in the area.”
The Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program is Ecology’s latest effort to provide legal water to the property owners in the Skagit River basin who were affected by the 2013 state Supreme Court ruling regarding the Skagit River instream flow rule.
Instream flow rules are a tool Ecology uses, on rivers throughout the state, to ensure the use of water resources doesn’t affect fish.
The 2013 ruling — in a case brought by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community — left hundreds of existing homes without a legal water supply and hundreds of vacant lots without a water supply required in order to build homes.
The Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program is a solution for 340 property owners — along the Skagit River primarily in Skagit County but with some in Snohomish County — left “in legal limbo” by the ruling, Berns said.
The agreement can also support new domestic water uses within the mitigation area, which includes areas generally along the river between about Bacon Creek in the Marblemount area and Hansen Creek in the Sedro-Woolley area.
“We anticipate that could allow for over 1,000 new uses,” Berns said.
The program went live last week thanks to a May 2019 agreement with Seattle City Light, which operates three hydroelectric dams on the upper Skagit River.
“It’s all official,” Ecology spokesperson Keeley Belva said Monday. “We did the transaction with Seattle City Light and they started providing the water.”
In exchange for about $1.5 million, Seattle City Light is now using some of its senior water rights to provide Ecology with a water supply to support property owners along the river.
Belva said as of Monday, Seattle City Light is now continuously releasing an additional 0.5 cubic feet of water per second from Gorge Dam in the Newhalem area.
“Seattle City Light was pleased ... to help resolve a significant water issue in the Skagit Watershed,” company General Manager and CEO Debra Smith said in an Ecology news release. “This solution helps to meet the needs of local communities along the river while supporting fish, which aligns with our environmental stewardship priorities.”