Environment
5:00 am
Mon November 12, 2012

County commissioners call for mediation in Skagit Valley water fight

In Skagit County, a decades-old fight over water rights has come to a
head.

County Commissioners are walking away from an agreement they say
was originally intended to allocate water permits fairly, while
protecting endangered salmon. But now they say that agreement has
caused nothing but lawsuits, so they’re seeking mediation instead.

Will Honea is Skagit County’s Civil Attorney. He says the agreement, which has been in place for 16 years, was developed through collaborative talks between tribes, cities, utilities and rural landowners and farmers. It was meant to help all of those interests co-exist in the fertile landscapes of the Skagit River valley, while still guaranteeing enough water for salmon.

“Skagit County signed this agreement to participate in a cooperative
water planning process that would reduce rural wells, but not
eliminate landowners‘ access to water,” Honea says.

And he says as a result, water rights for people outside cities in
Skagit County are strictly budgeted. They now have the toughest
restrictions in the state on rural water.

But he says the Swinomish tribe has filed repeated lawsuits, seeking to eliminate the entire water allocation for farmers and rural landowners.

The Swinomish argue the agreement was good as originally written. But
they say an illegal amendment in 2006 allows development that would
hurt salmon, which is at the heart of the tribe’s culture and economy. 

Brian Cladoosby is the tribal chairman.

“We’re salmon people. If our salmon go the way of the buffalo, it’s just a part of our culture that is going to die," Cladoosby says. "And we’re not only doing it for us. It’s for the non-Indians too. They enjoy that beautiful resource as much as we do.”

Skagit County’s Honea says the three other tribes in the area have
dropped out of the lawsuit. And he says the county is tired of
fighting in court.

“So what we’re doing is, we’re not going to go to court again," Honea says. "We’re just going to step away from the conflict and we’re asking the Governor to appoint a qualified mediator to help our community move forward on a more positive path. "

He says the Swinomish tribe’s argument hinges on a technical error made by the Department of Ecology when they drafted the in-stream flow rule in 2001. And if the Swinomish win, about 6,000 rural landowners would be left without a legal source of water, including about 550 homes that have already been built.

The suit has made it all the way to the State Supreme Court, which
hears oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.