Tribal leaders testified Tuesday that treaty fishing rights are diminished when salmon don’t have enough water. The testimony was given to the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee about a new proposal to solve the permit-exempt wells problem. In many parts of Washington State, permit-exempt wells are still being dug despite little understanding of their impact on water resources.

The proposal is a response to the Whatcom County v. Hirst decision, which required counties to ensure water is available before they issued building permits.

You can watch the testimony of the tribal leaders below:

Farron McCloud, chair of the Nisqually Tribe, pointed out that tribes are already suffering because habitat loss is shrinking salmon runs. In 1989, the tribe fished five days a week from summer through winter. Last year the tribe fished only eight days.

“Probably nothing is more important to us (than) treaty rights and the protection of salmon,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “And now we’re talking about water rights because it is so critical to salmon.”

The tribes want a solution that assures enough water for both fish and people, Allen said. “From our perspective, the conversation here is about how we can implement responsible stewardship over water resources to the benefit of everyone,” he said.

The initial legislative proposal includes reliance on locally-based water plans, which Allen said can work. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe participated in one such process that found an agreement between irrigators and resource managers on the Dungeness River (https://nwtreatytribes.org/ruling-continues-protect-dungeness-water-resources/). But there are still challenges.

“If you don’t have the will and interest of the people participating, they can always find a way to not make it work,” Allen said. “If you come to the table ready to find solutions, we can make it work. We found a way.”

The continued decline of salmon habitat makes upcoming discussions about water all the more important. “Minimum instream flows are not being met and salmon are not surviving,” said Jeremiah Julius, chair of the Lummi Nation. “That’s the reality. Climate change and population growth will only make the situation worse. What is needed is a holistic approach to water allocation that protects senior water rights holders. This is about fairness.”