MOUNT VERNON — The Skagit County Board of Commissioners approved an agreement Tuesday with the state Department of Ecology to move toward providing water to some rural property owners along a portion of the Skagit River.
“It is a big deal,” Commissioner Lisa Janicki said. “This is a big day.”
Many properties in the Skagit River watershed have been without a legal source of water since 2013 as a result of a 2001 instream flow rule and related lawsuits. Instream flow rules are a tool Ecology uses to ensure adequate stream flows for fish.
The memorandum of understanding, or MOU, unanimously approved Tuesday was a procedural but important step toward implementing the Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program, which will restore a legal source of water to 338 properties along the river from about Bacon Creek near Marblemount to Hansen Creek near Sedro-Woolley.
Ecology developed the program in partnership with Seattle City Light, the Washington Water Trust and Skagit County.
The program will allow the 338 properties with existing structures or building permits, and about 900 additional properties, to use a combined 362 acre-feet of water per year, according to a permit issued Feb. 5, 2020.
Ecology compensated Seattle City Light $1.5 million for agreeing to continuously release an additional 0.5 cubic feet of water per second from its Gorge Dam into the Skagit River to mitigate for that annual water use.
“The subject mitigation program will offer an environmentally- and legally-sound mitigation solution for a significant number of impacted property owners,” the permit states.
Ria Berns, Ecology’s Water Resources program manager for the Northwest Region, said properties allocated water through the Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program will be metered. According to the permit, 5% of the available water — about 18 acre-feet per year — will not be allocated to ensure the cap of 362 acre-feet per year is not exceeded.
“I’m highly supportive of this,” Janicki said. “In water, we have no perfect solutions, but this is definitely a viable solution for people who are in this drainage and meet the requirements set by Ecology.”
Ecology and Seattle City Light unveiled the plan in early 2019 and reached an official agreement in March 2020.
Skagit County Planning and Development Services Director Hal Hart and Assistant Director Michael Cerbone told the commissioners the memorandum of understanding will allow planning department staff to use the mitigation program when processing building permit applications.
“My team wants to get the water out there in the simplest, fastest way possible so that people can really implement their plans up and down the Skagit River where this would apply,” Hart said.
Some details about how the program will work are still being ironed out.
“The intent of the MOU is really to serve as a gateway to allow staff to continue work with (Ecology) toward implementing the program,” Cerbone said.
The Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program follows smaller-scale mitigation projects that in recent years have helped provide water to property owners in the Big Lake and Bay View areas.
“We have had some successes working with the Department of Ecology (to allow water use and new construction),” said Hart, adding that some mitigated water rights in the Big Lake area have been claimed and others are pending. “The idea is that while we’re doing that, we’re protecting stream flows at the same time.”
The nonprofit Washington Water Trust is involved in the program by acting as a temporary holder of the secondary use water right being moved from senior water right holder Seattle City Light to Ecology.