Swinomish Tribe keeps an eye on water rights issue

Years of agriculture, development and other human activity have led to declines in salmon runs throughout Puget Sound. One reason is that these activities lead to a reduction in the stream flows needed for salmon to spawn and migrate.

The Skagit River is home to all five species of Pacific salmon.

“The Swinomish Tribe is committed to protecting salmon and instream flows in the Skagit River basin, which is within our usual and accustomed fishing areas,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Ecology determined that groundwater had been over-allocated in the Carpenter/Fisher subbasin of the Skagit, and was close to exhausted in the Nookachamps subbasin, according to tributary reservations established in 2006 . As a result, Skagit County can’t issue permits for new wells to be dug on properties in those areas.

“The public sees all this water flowing in a very big river,” said Jeannie Summerhays, director for Ecology’s northwest regional office. “But some of these upper tributaries have a real water shortage.”

Skagit County and the state Department of Ecology began a legal battle over water rights when the county took the state to court in 2003 to challenge the instream flow rule. The Swinomish Tribe got involved in the litigation in response to the county’s legal action.

“In 1996, Skagit County signed a memorandum of agreement about water rights with tribes and other stakeholders,” said Larry Wasserman, environmental services director for the Swinomish Tribe. “It’s unfortunate that rather than living up to previous agreements and recognitions that they’ve chosen to go down this divisive path.”

The tribe’s only concern is protecting the salmon that are a cornerstone of the Swinomish culture and economy.

“We have no interest in limiting growth,” Chairman Cladoosby said. “We support expanding piped water to meet additional population demands while reducing impacts to instream flows.”

More information about the water issue in the Skagit River basin can be found on the Swinomish Tribe’s website.