Environmental groups support Swinomish in water rights dispute

Earthjustice and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy filed a friends of the court brief today with the Washington State Court of Appeals supporting the Swinomish Tribe’s effort to protect the Skagit River and salmon habitat.

In their brief, Earthjustice and CELP argue that the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) cannot allow more water to be withdrawn from the troubled Skagit River and its tributaries for new junior water uses because such new uses would further impair stream-flows. Impaired stream-flows damage salmon, other wildlife and communities that depend on the water.

The tribal community’s appeal, filed in 2008, challenges Ecology’s 2006 revision to the in-stream flow rule for the Skagit River and its tributaries.

“Along with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, we will not stand by to see critical tributaries of the Skagit reduced to trickles simply because Ecology is unwilling to uphold the law and protect the instream flow reservations that preserve the river and its wildlife,” said Suzanne Skinner of CELP. “The Skagit must be conserved for future generations and we will work to protect the precious water that salmon and people need to survive.”

The conservationists’ brief challenges Ecology’s claim that the “public interest” exemption creates a loophole to ignore protecting basic in-stream flows whenever Ecology finds it convenient or generally desirable to do so. Rather, the public interest doctrine is meant to be used in limited emergencies such as fire suppression or health emergencies. That limited, temporary, emergency use was Ecology’s long-standing position until very recently when it started to stretch the emergency exception into a big, permanent loophole.

Read the press release.