KAMILCHE – The Squaxin Island Tribe is appealing to Gov. Chris Gregoire the decision by the state Department of Ecology to reject a petition to protect Johns Creek. “Ecology’s inaction does further harm to our treaty-based fisheries,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the Tribe. “Salmon recovery should not have to bear a disproportionate share of the fallout from tough economic times.”
This is the second time in two years that Ecology has rejected the Tribe’s request to protect Johns Creek, citing the need for study on the connection between ground and surface water in the Johns Creek watershed. The Tribe’s petitions were based on a state law that closes a watershed to new well drilling activity if not enough information exists to establish that water is legally available.
If the Gov. Gregoire is serious about protecting the waters of Puget Sound, then she will direct Ecology to act. “Ecology’s excuse is the lack of resources. It takes a commitment to their responsibilities, not money, to close the basin,” said Kevin Lyon, the Tribe’s attorney. “The rule is simple: if you lack information, you don’t take water – especially when minimum flows are not being met.
“Ecology acknowledges that it lacks the information, but it won’t do the right thing. Let’s hope with the Governor’s input, this will attract the right attention and action,” Lyon said. “The Tribe is a willing partner, but it cannot accept Ecology ignoring the problem any longer.”
In the first round, Ecology denied the petition and offered as an alternative six commitments. However, in 18 months since, no progress was made on those commitments. “This time, they didn’t even bother to talk about their past commitments and abandoned them,” Lyon said. “And if you read the commitments that are made the potential study is no commitment at all and the limits on additional exempt wells is virtually meaningless.”
“We agree a study needs to be done,” Whitener said. The Tribe’s original petition, filed in 2008, was rejected with a promise that a study would be conducted on groundwater in the Johns Creek watershed.
“We joined with the City of Shelton and Mason County to request a study as far back as 2006,” Whitener said. “Funding was available at the time, but Ecology declined the request.” Every year since then the Tribe has requested funding for the study, and every year Ecology has rejected that request.
“After Ecology failed several times to fund the study, we filed our first petition,” said Jeff Dickison, assistant director of natural resources for the Tribe. “Its ironic that they have now twice rejected our petition because they need a study that they won’t fund.”
Ecology’s sole concession to the Tribe’s request will be to issue a directive that new residents in the watershed should use water only for indoor uses. “That’s a small step from our point of view because most of the impact will come from industrial development,” said Dickison. The approximately 10,500 acre watershed northeast of Shelton has been a center of recent industrial and commercial activity. “Telling people in new houses not to water their lawn isn’t going to save the creek,” he said.
“While we agree there needs to be more research, we already know two important things right now: there isn’t enough water in the creek to support salmon and a lot of water has been taken out of the creek in recent decades,” Whitener said. Johns Creek does not meet state minimum flow requirements to support salmon, and over the past 25 years, more than 200 exempt wells have been drilled in the watershed.
First intended as a way to allow homeowners and other low volume users easier access to water, the increasing number of exempt wells has had an impact on groundwater levels.
Winter rainfall seeps into the ground, providing summer streamflow for Johns Creek. But because wells draw water from the same supply, when they are pumped there is less water available to maintain streamflows. “A groundwater model could help identify if, where and when water can be taken from wells so that there would be little or no impact on streamflows,” said John Konovsky, environmental program manager for the Tribe. “Without that kind of tool, we’re flying blind.”
Johns Creek is home to a small and fragile population of summer chum that is being harmed by increasingly low water levels. “If we could achieve the state-mandated minimum levels, we would have 20 percent more spawning habitat in Johns Creek,” Konovsky said.
“They didn’t reject our petition because there is enough water in the creek for salmon, they rejected it because their isn’t enough money for a solution,” Whitener said. In a letter to the Tribe outlining the reasons for the denial, the department cites “staff reductions and potential new cuts” and points out they are attempting to secure outside funding to conduct a study on Johns Creek.
The natural resources portion of the state budget has been especially hard hit in recent years. Despite making up less than 3 percent of the entire state budget, natural resources management was cut by 12 percent last year — the second most of any state government sector. Current budgets being proposed this year will cut the natural resources budget even further.
“We all agree that salmon runs are being hurt by low flows and we don’t know how much water is available,” Whitener said. “But the longer Ecology stalls and does nothing, the harder and more expensive its going to be to fix.”
For more information, contact: Andy Whitener, natural resources director, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3800. Jeff Dickison, assistant natural resources director, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3815. John Konovsky, Environmental Program Manager, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3804. Emmett O’Connell, Information Officer, NWIFC, (360) 528-4304.