The Swinomish Tribe has asked the state Department of Ecology to investigate whether the irrigation practice of collecting water in a check dam violates water rights, and the tribe’s treaty rights, in the Skagit Valley.
The tribe conducted a survey of irrigation practices in the Skagit delta last year, making observations from public right of ways. The tribe’s unverified conclusion was that almost half of the observed irrigation in the delta in July and August appeared to be taking place without a water-right permit.
These purportedly illegal water uses are taking stream flows away from salmon, the tribe said in a June 4 letter to Ecology that included the results of the survey. Area tribes have a treaty right to harvest half the salmon that return to the Skagit and Samish rivers to spawn.
“The Swinomish tribe is very concerned that illegal use of water for irrigation purposes in the Skagit and Samish river watersheds will continue to harm fisheries resources,” tribal Environmental Policy Manager Larry Wasserman wrote.
The letter went on to ask Ecology to conduct its own investigation of irrigation practices near the lower Skagit and to stop any unauthorized water use.
In a June 4 letter to the Ecology Department, the tribe said that what it believes to be illegal use of water for irrigation purposes in the Skagit and the nearby Samish River watersheds will harm salmon and impair senior water rights, including senior instream flow rights.
Because many tribes in Western Washington have legal rights to one-half of the salmon and other fish, adequate instream flows for the fish must be maintained by law.
The tribe maintains that collecting the water behind check dams impedes instream flows.
In the letter to the Ecology Department, the tribe described some irrigation surveys it conducted in the Lower Skagit, Samish and Padilla Bay watersheds during eight days in July and August 2008.
The survey was conducted by looking for irrigation use that could easily be observed from within public rights of way.
As part of the survey, photographs were taken and GPS coordinates established. From there, the tribe tried to determine if there were claims, certificates or permits associated with the observed use of water.
Acknowledging that the survey was limited by many factors, the tribe said it came to the conclusion that “no authorization exists in the records available to us for a significant amount of the irrigation we observed.”
Based on that conclusion, the tribe asked the department to investigate the uses of water for irrigation in the areas the tribe surveyed.
The letter was a follow-up to one written to the department last year by Larry Wasserman, environmental policy manager for the tribe.
In that letter, Wasserman said he observed a check dam in a drainage ditch in the LaConner area that appeared to be impeding the downstream flow of water so it could be used for irrigation.
In searching state water-rights records for the area, Wasserman said he couldn’t find any record of a permit or certificate for the construction or use of a check dam for irrigation at that location.
Wasserman asked the department to investigate the construction and use of the check dam and to make sure that any check dams in the Skagit Valley comply with state water codes.