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Addressing water right requests a work in progress

With a backlog of 20 years or more, the Washington State Department of Ecology is making some headway on answering requests for new water rights in the Yakima Basin.

While nearly 300 have been processed, there are still about 800 more to address.

"We just didn't have the information needed to make the decision on what impact a withdrawal would have," agency spokesperson Joye-Redfield-Wilder says of the delay.

That all changed in 2011 when a U.S. Geological Survey study that showed how new groundwater pumping affects flows in the Yakima River.

The study indicates new groundwater uses will reduce flows in the Yakima River. Also, some local aquifers are declining in response to pumping by existing water users.

The supply may not get as much help this year as anticipated from the snowpack either, as recent forecasts by the National Weather Service indicate below normal precipitation throughout Washington's river basins.

The upshot of all this - declining groundwater and uncertain supply - is that many water-right applicants are taking a long-term approach for their needs.

"We're finding most people are setting aside their requests for water - an option that provides them time to seek needed mitigation or consider other alternatives," said Sage Park, a water resources manager with the Department of Ecology.

Of the 293 applications processed to date, Redfield-Wilder says 126 have put their request on hold to give them time to purchase a senior water right, usually from 1905 or earlier.

Unless applicants can obtain a senior water right or - like fisheries show they will be using but not drawing out water - the only other alternative is to deny the request, says Redfield-Wilder.

"We can't allow new withdrawals because the USGS study shows the impact on senior water rights," she says. "There could become a huge legal impact."

Indeed, the USGS study completed in 2011 was the result of a legal settlement with the Yakama Nation and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The nation and bureau contended that new groundwater pumping only worsened total water supply in the basin, a finding confirmed by the study.

Redfield-Wilder says there may be a solution in the future for those seeking water rights: individual counties buying senior water rights and then selling them to new water applicants. In essence the move would create what Redfield-Wilder calls "water banks" to create a pool of water rights for new developments.

As for handling the application backlog, the Department of Ecology is wrapping up water right requests in the Moxee and Wide Hollow sub-basins. The agency plans to begin reviewing requests for new ground and surface water permits in lower Kittitas County next.

Work also remains under way in areas of West Richland, Richland and Badger Canyon in Benton County.

Redfield-Wilder noted nearly 100 of the water right applicants have yet to provide information on how they would like their water request to be processed.

She says the agency needs to hear from applicants so it can know how to proceed.

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