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Policing of Water is Called 'Abysmal'

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 8, 2002

State agency's stewardship called 'dereliction of duty' in critical report

The Washington Department of Ecology is doing an "abysmal to non-existent" job of stopping illegal water use and has failed to manage water supplies to help pull endangered fish back from the brink of extinction, says a report released yesterday by two environmental groups.

The report also singled out the state Legislature for cutting Ecology's budget to penalize the agency when it threatened water rights of the politically powerful.

Ecology responded that while it has a complicated and difficult job, and the report makes many good points, it goes too far with its title: "Dereliction of Duty -- Washington's Failure to Protect Our Shared Waters."

The agency is doing the best it can, an Ecology spokesman said, and is making progress curbing illegal water use.

The report was released by the Washington Environmental Council and the lesser-known Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which lobbies the Legislature and files water-rights lawsuits.

"The state has been derelict in its duty to manage our most valuable natural resource," the report states. "The state does not know how much water is actually being used by legitimate water-right holders or by illegal water users."

It highlights a situation that Ecology employees have bemoaned in the past -- uncertainty as to which users have valid rights to water and which are operating on outdated claims. And then there are people simply stealing water and hoping they don't get caught.

The groups cited a previous report done under the direction of Gov. Gary Locke's office that said a "significant amount" of illegal water use was going on and added, "Ecology has found these forms of illegal activity to some degree in most areas of the state that it has investigated."

Ecology, after a suit by the environmental groups, has technically followed a 1993 law that requires that large water users meter their usage. But the agency has failed to require the water users to report the results, "undercutting the very purpose of monitoring," the report says.

"Trying to manage water without knowing the limits of existing water rights, monitoring and enforcing these limits ... is akin to a bank trying to manage money without ever keeping track of deposits and withdrawals."

The report cites a 1999 Ecology document that indicates more than 90 percent of the state has lacked effective enforcement of water laws over the last decade.

In addition, Ecology has failed to set flow targets for roughly two-thirds of the streams in the state, despite a legal requirement to do so, the report states.

The situation hurts more than the fish, the environmental groups say. Citing data from a fisheries institute, the report says the commercial- and sport-fishing industries in Washington are losing an estimated $500 million in annual economic benefits because of the decline of salmon and other fish.

Materials uncovered by the report's authors, including internal e-mails, suggest that Ecology employees enforcing water law tread lightly because they fear retribution by the Legislature.

Curt Hart, an Ecology spokesman, said the agency is about to set flow targets for 31 different watersheds around the state.

He said Ecology has four people looking for illegal water use, which he acknowledged is too few to do a thorough job. Those four, though, represent an improvement over the years from 1995 to 2001, when budget cuts forced the agency to reduce even that meager force, he said.

Hart said the agency issued 22 citations for illegal water use from 1999 to 2001 and assessed fines totaling $670,500.

"We have an incredibly complicated job to do and we would be the first to agree that there is a lot of room for improvement, and we've said that over the years," Hart said. "But in no way does it add up to a dereliction of duty."

He noted that the governor's Competitiveness Council last year criticized Ecology for enforcing the law against illegal water use too vigorously.

Much of the illegal water use, Ecology workers have said, goes on in the agricultural sector.

Dean Boyer of the Washington Farm Bureau agrees that illegal water use shouldn't be tolerated. Those taking water illegally are, in effect, stealing from farmers and others who obtain water legally, he said.

However, Boyer criticized much about the report, including what he termed "rhetoric that could do damage to private property rights and the economy of this state."

"In this state and throughout the West, water rights have been recognized by the courts as a legitimate property right," Boyer said. "And what this report seems to suggest is somehow ignoring that fact and taking all of the water rights and redistributing them in some fashion to put fish and wildlife ahead of everything else."

Kristie Carevich, lead author of the report, said the environmentalists were simply calling for "a balance."

"I don't think our focus is getting water just for fish," Carevich said.

"We want a better discussion of how to meet the state's objectives of having our communities grow and having water for our communities, but also having enough clean, flowing water left in our rivers."

Robert McClure
Policing of Water is Called 'Abysmal'
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 8, 2002

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