State of Our Watersheds: Wells deplete water resource for salmon

A growing concern in the effort to recover salmon populations is the availability of water. Increasing numbers of permit-exempt wells reduce the amount of surface water and can harm salmon at all stages of their life cycle.

Despite a recent downturn in the economy, there has been a 3 percent growth in well drilling across Puget Sound since 2009. As the economy recovers, the rate of new wells will probably increase.

Washington state instream flow rules allocate river flow for ecological requirements, but state law allows new wells to withdraw 5,000 gallons of groundwater per day without obtaining a permit that would require scientific evidence that water is legally available. Groundwater withdrawals can cumulatively affect streamflows, especially in late summer when flows are naturally low.

In Whatcom County between 2008 and 2014, the Washington State Department of Ecology estimates that 565 new permit-exempt wells were drilled.


According to the Northwest Treaty Tribes’ recently released State of Our Watersheds Report:

Approximately 72% of all wells in (Water Resources Inventory Area) 1 are in basins either seasonally closed or closed year-round to water withdrawal due to instream flow levels that are less than the minimum flows established in 1985.

According to the WRIA 1 Salmonid Recovery Plan, not meeting instream low flow limits results in habitat connectivity loss, reduced habitat volume, stranding of juvenile salmon, higher stream temperature and general decrease in water quality.

The WRIA 1 watershed instream flow rules were set in 1985 to “protect and preserve” instream resources from low flow exceedance.

As displayed in the map above, permit-exempt wells have continued to be developed in WRIA 1 since 1985. While legal under state water law, continued permit-exempt well development in basins that are closed to additional withdrawal under the state flow rule is in direct conflict with the guidance of the Salmonid Recovery Plan, which recommends reducing out-of-stream uses in sub-basins impacted by low instream flows.

Learn more about the 2016 State of Our Watersheds report.