SHELTON – The Squaxin Island Tribe has filed a second petition with the state Department of Ecology (DOE) to stop all new water withdrawals, including permit-exempt wells, in the Johns Creek watershed near Shelton. The action was taken to protect several runs of salmon that spawn and rear in the creek.
“There isn’t enough water in Johns Creek to support salmon,” said Andy Whitener, natural resources director for the Squaxin Island Tribe. Likely because of withdrawals from hundreds of domestic and municipal wells, the creek does not meet state mandated minimum flows to protect salmon.
The tribe filed the petition under a state law that closes a watershed from future withdrawals if not enough information is available to justify those withdrawals.
This new petition comes almost two years after the state declined an initial call from the tribe to protect Johns Creek. With the original refusal came the promise that the state would work with Mason County to develop ways to achieve minimum streamflows. “That so-called ‘alternative path forward’ never materialized,” Whitener said. “Neither the state or Mason County took any action.”
Among other things, the state did not fund a request to complete a scientific study of the connection between surface and groundwater. “We know Johns Creek does not meet state minimum flow requirements. What we don’t know is exactly where and how the creek is connected to groundwater,” said Jeff Dickison, Squaxin natural resources assistant director. Groundwater is critical to Johns Creek because it supplies summer-time streamflows to support salmon populations.
Over the past 25 years, over 200 exempt wells have been drilled in the Johns Creek watershed. Permit-exempt wells are a way to access water without first determining if water is available. First intended to allow small users easier access to water, their small size was intended to limit their impact. “The common use of exempt wells in Johns Creek has made them a real – and hard to track – problem in determining water availability,” Dickison said.
“One or two exempt wells aren’t really anything to be worried about,” said Whitener. “But, their common use in Johns Creek is causing a death-by-a-thousand-cuts.”
Some winter rainfall seeps into the ground and provides both drinking water and summer streamflow for Johns Creek. Because wells draw water from the same supply that discharges into Johns Creek, when wells are pumped, there is less water for the creek. “A groundwater model can help identify if, where and when water can be taken from wells that would have 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 summer flows were just at the minimum required, we would see 20 percent more spawning habitat available for summer chum salmon,” said Konovsky.
The approximately 10,500 acre watershed northeast of Shelton has been the center of recent economic and residential development efforts. “We know that salmon runs are being hurt by low flows. We simply don’t know how much water is available for people to use near Johns Creek,” Whitener said. “You can’t just assume there is enough water there for development to happen, you need to find out first.”
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.