U.S. Water News Online
KENNEWICK, Wash. -- The water conservancy boards in two
Eastern Washington counties have filed suit against the state,
accusing it of failing to follow proper procedures in how it
calculates changes to water rights.
The boards in Benton and Franklin counties allege the state
Department of Ecology's new standards for how it calculates the
amount of water that can be kept when a water right is transferred or
changed are improper.
Benton County Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge issued a temporary
restraining order to block the state from using the new standards.
Darryll Olsen, chairman of the Benton County board, said the new
standards amount to an improper taking of water rights. The Ecology
Department has been applying the new standards to recent water rights
change applications without following state law that requires a
formal rule-making process, including public comments, he said.
"If this rule goes through, it will be applied everywhere
possible,'' he said.
Joye Redfield-Wilder, spokeswoman for the Ecology Department,
denied Olsen's claims that the department has new standards on the
matter. She also defended the department's right to use the most
current available scientific and technical information when managing
"We're making our change decisions under our statutory authority
and discretion,'' she said. "We're using the scientific and technical
information that's out there to make decisions on a case by case
The dispute centers on the definition of "consumptive use,'' or
water used by crops, and water inevitably lost to evaporation during
irrigation, versus "return flows,'' or water that returns to the soil
and is not productively used to grow crops.
Olsen accused the Ecology Department of choosing new standards
that overestimate the amount of return flows typical for various
irrigation methods. the standards could reduce by an average of 10
percent or more the amount of water actually available for water
users, he said.
Because only the "consumptive'' amount of a water right, not
return flows, are eligible for change or transfer under state law,
increasing the amount of water assumed to be lost to returning flows
will decrease the amount of water included in changed or transferred
water rights, he said.
"They're trying to say all of the losses are attributable to
return flows,'' Olsen said. "We're saying, no, these are direct
irrigation application losses.''
Redfield-Wilder said no one should assume the department's
standards will result in loss of water rights. Rather, she said,
using the best scientific information available will enable agency
officials to more accurately assess each situation individually.
She said the Ecology Department intends to file a response to the
The judge set a hearing on whether to prevent Ecology officials
from applying the new standards.
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