Water users in the Little Spokane River Basin may have to curb their consumption if water levels dip much lower, the state Department of Ecology has warned.
The agency said Monday it had sent letters to 172 junior water rights holders in the parched watershed, warning it may have to impose water-use restrictions this summer.
The river already is flowing near the state’s minimum summertime rate of 115 cubic feet per second, the agency said. Warm weather and declining runoff indicate the flow rate might dip below that threshold, it said.
Minimum flow requirements are designed to protect fish and other wildlife. When the Ecology Department issues curtailment orders, which usually remain in place for an entire season, junior rights holders must call a hotline each day to learn whether they can divert or withdraw water for irrigation.
“Often, people don’t know that they’re violating the law,” Jaime Short, water resources section manager for the agency’s regional office in Spokane, said in a statement. “When we contact them about a problem, they’re usually very willing to make changes to bring themselves into compliance. That’s how the vast majority of our issues in the watershed get resolved.”
The Little Spokane River Basin encompasses parts of Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Groundwater there has been scarce for years, though the Ecology Department hasn’t had to issue curtailment orders since 2015.
Development in the watershed was effectively halted in 2016, when the state Supreme Court handed down a controversial decision in Whatcom County v. Hirst. The ruling required anyone seeking a construction permit to prove there’s enough water in the ground to supply a proposed development, without depleting river flows or infringing on a neighbor’s water right.
Commissioners for Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties set up a “water bank” in 2017 to buy and sell water rights and legally issue building permits in a portion of the watershed. Then, after much compromise last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill to ease the burden on developers.
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