An agreement between Seattle City Light and the state Department of Ecology will remove legal uncertainty over water use for hundreds of homes in portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties.
The electric utility and state agency announced the agreement this week.
Through the agreement, Seattle City Light is using some of its senior water rights to provide Ecology with a water supply, Ecology Water Resources Program Regional Supervisor Ria Berns said.
Ecology will pay Seattle City Light to continuously release 0.5 cubic feet of water per second from Gorge Dam — the lowest of three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River — specifically to offset the impact on the river by the use of area wells.
Berns said that release is enough to cover a half-square-mile with 1 foot of water each year.
That will enable Ecology to provide uninterruptible water access for homes with wells built between April 2001 and October 2013 and affected by the 2013 Supreme Court decision regarding the Skagit River instream flow rule.
The decision left those homeowners without an uninterruptible source of water and other landowners without the ability to build homes.
Ecology is paying $1.1 million for that water and $315,000 for the year-long development of the agreement.
Berns said the water supply in the agreement will offset water use for about 400 homes built during that time in the Skagit River watershed, which covers most of Skagit County and extends south into Snohomish County primarily along the Sauk River.
While about 60 percent of the water will be designated for those existing homes, the other 40 percent will be available for new construction in a limited area along the Skagit River, according to the agreement.
The agreement is possible thanks to Seattle City Light’s water rights for operating its Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which includes Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams and precedes the Skagit River instream flow rule established in 2001 and upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2013.
The instream flow rule establishes a limit for water use in order to ensure adequate river flows are maintained to protect fish including the five Pacific salmon species.
The agreement between Seattle City Light and Ecology will allow for mitigation of hundreds of residential wells while meeting the requirements of the instream flow rule.
“This water release will benefit both local communities along the river as well as the fish in the river,” Seattle City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith said in a news release. “We believe that this collaborative approach can serve as a model for settling future natural resource issues.”
Seattle City Light holds water rights in order to store water behind its three dams. It is also required, under federal permit, to maintain flows favorable for fish downstream.
The water Seattle City Light is providing to Ecology is a fraction of its water storage capacity, according to the utility’s website.
In order to release 0.5 cubic feet of water per second continuously, Seattle City Light needs to complete a Gorge Dam infrastructure project, which is expected to begin this fall.
Also, Ecology needs to develop a mitigation plan and related permitting for qualifying wells. Berns said the agency expects the mitigation program to start operating in 2020.
“This approach provides needed relief to Skagit landowners and is part of our ongoing efforts to develop water solutions throughout the Skagit watershed,” Ecology Director Maia Bellon said in the release.
The agreement with Seattle City Light follows projects remedying water right issues in the Big Lake and Bay View areas in recent years.
— Story updated 5/17 to reflect that Seattle City Light is not selling its water rights and correct the spelling of Ria Berns' name.