The Place for Ethics in the Resolution of Hirst and Other Water Conflicts in Washington State

This year’s legislative efforts to restore groundwater availability after the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Whatcom County v. Hirst resulted in a partisan deadlock that also side-lined the state’s $4 billion capital budget. Economic impacts of the deadlock are now estimated to run to $11 billion and cause a $37 billion decrease in the value of undeveloped land,[1] which will dramatically shift property tax burdens to urban areas. Legislative compromise efforts stalled pending the November special election and are now unlikely to resolve these issues without a new set of tools and ideas to bring disparate viewpoints and objectives together.

This new paper by Tom Pors explains how natural resource conflict problems such as the Hirst and Foster decisions can be resolved using recognized ethical principles and shared community values. The ability to resolve a conflict ethically implies that to not resolve the conflict violates these same ethical principles. This is not just a challenge to state lawmakers and the stakeholders who lobby them, it is a comment on the current state of polarizing politics in our nation and state. In both the creation of this state’s water resource conflicts and in the process of avoiding workable compromises, we have sacrificed community moral values and ignored ethical principles. The author contends that in order to change course for the public good, we need to increase our collective awareness of the connection between water availability conflicts and these recognized ethical values. Please read the full paper at this link, or download a pdf here.

What are the Ethical Principles that Inform Natural Resource Conflicts?

Different ways of conceptualizing what water is and how human beings should use it have different ethical implications. Viewing water as a component of an ecosystem commons implicates principles of sufficiency/equity and proportionality, as explained below. Treating water as a commodity to be bought and sold, or as property to be controlled unilaterally, implicates human rights and social and environmental justice. For instance, the prior appropriation doctrine establishes property rights in water, including instream flow water rights, which can conflict with the basic human right to access drinking water.[1] In 2010, the human right to water was officially recognized by both the UN’s General Assembly[2] and the Human Rights Council.[3]

Ethicist James Martin-Schramm presented four key ethical values as relevant to the resolution of water conflicts at a 2004 seminar sponsored by Seattle University School of Theology and the Center for Water and Ethics: sustainabilitysufficiencyparticipation, and solidarity.[4] The identification and exploration of these principles was based on decades of work by theologians and ethicists dealing with environmental health and social justice issues.[5]The object of an ethical negotiation or compromise relating to water allocation is to incorporate these values in a meaningful discussion with the appropriate stakeholder interests.

Why Employ Ethical Principles in Water Allocation Conflict Resolution?

Ethics is concerned with what human beings ought or ought not to do. Water resource conflicts have been identified as a “metaphysical blindspot in ethics,” which is remarkable given that water is vital to all human endeavors and their effect on nature.[6] As evidenced by the 2017 Legislature’s failure to adopt a Hirst fix or a capital budget through three extra sessions, water management is contentious and not easily accomplished in a top-down process.

Why has the legislative process in Washington State failed thus far to resolve water availability issues? Stakeholder positions in a top down process are typically one-sided and issues are presented to legislators as existential crises, while competing users’ positions are presented as threats rather than community concerns that deserve equal attention. Groundwater management and the effects of small withdrawals on stream flow are also complex technically and subject to oversimplification and outright misrepresentation by non-technical advocacy groups. Most legislators are not well educated on the technical side of water resources and with so many competing legislative objectives, they tend to default to favored constituent or caucus leadership positions rather than debate competing ideas or engage in conflict resolution with affected parties.

Centralized management of groundwater resources in the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has failed to anticipate and avoid the prevailing judicial interpretations regarding water resource allocation and protection, including Ecology’s losing positions in the Foster and Hirst cases. (See Background section, below). Many or most of Ecology’s instream flow rules failed to anticipate the conflict between surface water protection and groundwater availability, yet Ecology has failed thus far to recognize that its rules are outdated and need substantial revision in light of new science and subsequent court decisions. Finally, Ecology has failed to draft or introduce any comprehensive solutions, despite facilitating a two-year stakeholder process to find specific solutions to rural water availability issues.[7] Stakeholder views were solicited by Ecology, but efforts were not made to engage stakeholders in dispute resolution or recognition of shared community values.

The failure of state agencies and the Legislature to resolve water resource conflicts raises the question whether it may be appropriate to place the management of water in the hands of those who have a stake in it. “Groundwater management should be in the hands of the stakeholders of the aquifer, under the supervision of the corresponding water authority. The stakeholders’ participation has to be promoted bottom-up and not top-down.”[8]

How to Develop Solutions Employing Ethical Principles?

As described elsewhere in this article, an ethical approach to resolving the state’s water resource conflicts involves initiating a process with stakeholder representatives and other decision-makers rather than relying on tried and failed top-down legislative or centralized management processes. The process used and persons invited to participate should also be guided by the same ethical values, which can be described as moral norms because they conform to our collective sense of a just society. This includes procedural and decision-making process values, such as democratic governance rights, active participation, transparency, accountability, and public-private collaboration and partnership. These values can provide answers to such questions as: Who participates in the decision-making process? How is a balance determined between the needs of human development and the need to preserve our natural resources?  This process could be used to resolve specific issues, such as legislatively adopted mitigation standards for groundwater applications affecting instream flows, for future water allocations on a watershed basis, or for individual conflicts.

Ethical Principles Applied to Water Allocation Problems

Sustainability. This value expresses concern for future generations and the planet, emphasizing that an adequate and acceptable quality of life today must not jeopardize prospects for future generations. Sustainability precludes short-sited emphasis on economic growth that harms ecological systems, but also excludes long-term conservation efforts that ignore human needs and costs.[9] The balance between conservation and human access is different for each watershed and evolves over time, because watersheds have unique fisheries and recreational assets and communities within watersheds have unique population densities and settlement/development histories. This rules out a one-sized fits all approach to sustainable water usage and conservation and suggests a greater need for flexibility and local involvement.[10]

Sufficiency. This value emphasizes that all forms of life (including people and fish) are entitled to those resources required to meet their basic needs, which is particularly relevant to such basic needs as clean air and access to drinking water. It repudiates wasteful consumption and encourages fairness and generosity.[11] Related to this is equal respect for human dignity, a fundamental principle of public health ethics.[12]

Related to the values of sustainability and sufficiency is the principle of equity and proportionality.  Meeting the needs of all persons and the environment is important, but equity and proportionate response require, in the face of limited resources, to give priority to the least well off, those most immediately at risk, and those made vulnerable by past discrimination, exclusion, and powerlessness.  This principle calls for protecting streams from over-appropriation, but also protecting ground water availability in rural areas and growing suburban communities where the most affordable housing alternatives are located. It seeks to prevent the inequities of so-called “have” and “have-not” communities.  For instance, forcing individual property owners to pay for mitigation of impacts caused by prior users of surface and groundwater is neither equitable nor proportional to the impacts caused by each new permit-exempt groundwater use.

From a financial and public health perspective, closing the safest and most affordable water supply alternative for rural development appears to be disproportionate and inequitable, especially if there are regional solutions available to mitigate for incremental cumulative effects on instream functions and values. There is also a disproportionate administrative impact to counties and state agencies administering water allocation and mitigation processes for the smallest water systems with the smallest impacts on water resources. State funding and coordination of regional mitigation efforts for cumulative impacts from the smallest users would be far more financially efficient and fair than requiring each landowner to conduct an individual water availability analysis and mitigation plan to be reviewed by county officials and potentially appealed to the courts. It would also result in better stewardship of our water and salmon resources.[13]

Participation The ecojustice norm of participation addresses the values inherent in the process of policymaking and decision making. Legislatures and courts may be influenced by powerful, well-organized, and well-funded groups on all sides of the political spectrum. For instance, there has been a rapid rise over the last decade of political contributions from federally-recognized Indian tribes, which in Washington State has been heavily tilted to the Democratic Party.[14] The most significant water right appeals in Washington state over the last decade have been funded by tribes and environmental organizations, not by consumptive water users or public water systems.[15] A dominant influence over government by any particular interest group is not well suited to the equitable distribution of water or any public resource.  From an ethical point of view, governance mechanisms should involve a deliberative and participatory process marked by transparency, universal access to information, inclusiveness, and individual and community empowerment so that all may take advantage of the open information and the participatory opportunities.[16]  Participation implies equality of access to decision-making processes, and is not inconsistent with balancing the needs of human development with the need to preserve our natural resources and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

The water rights that most limit legal availability of water in Washington State are minimum instream flow water rights, which are established and managed by Ecology for the purpose of preserving environmental values such as water quality, fish habitat, recreation and aesthetics. Unfortunately, the rule-making processes for most of these instream flow rules did not allocate water for future human domestic needs despite statutory policy that water be allocated according to the maximum net benefits to the public. RCW 90.54.020(2), 90.03.005. These instream flow rules have not been updated despite new information linking groundwater and surface water and new court decisions affecting the availability of groundwater.  The Washington Supreme Court has interpreted instream protection rules as excluding other uses of water, thus denying human access to water despite the failure to balance the public interests between water for instream and out of stream needs. Thus, the state’s groundwater has essentially been closed to new uses in order to protect instream flows without any public notice or robust balancing of public interests between environmental and human water needs. This process excluded public participation in the closure of groundwater that is relied upon by rural property owners and growing communities. Some open and public balancing of interests in groundwater should have happened, but did not.

Solidarity.  This moral norm emphasizes kinship and mutual interdependence, encourages assistance for those who suffer, discourages discrimination and oppression, and embodies a fundamental communal nature of life in contrast to individual rights and the pursuit of accumulation.  The notion of solidarity and interdependence applies in both social and ecological contexts, between human communities and nature. In water ethics, solidarity reminds us of what may be called our “upstream and downstream interdependence.”[17]

Treating water rights as private property implicates the conflict between self-interest and the social/ecological common good. There are situations in which the pursuit of rational self-interest leads to outcomes that are irrational and harmful to the interests of other individuals and communities, the so-called tragedy of the commons.  In other words, the human interests served by sustainable and sufficient water supply and by biodiversity and maintenance of a healthy environment are often not well served by encouraging individual behaviors that seek to maximize their self-interest. Treating water as a commodity under the prior appropriation doctrine, and creating incentives to preserve private water rights for future markets may be inconsistent with several of the ethical principles described above. Understanding that water is a common resource and a fundamental need, and that sustainable water utilization is a common good, can provide the basis for ethically appropriate solutions to current and future water availability issues.


The ethical principles of sustainability, sufficiency, participation, and solidarity are a useful guide for both governmental and individual behavior in the resolution of water resource conflicts. The Washington legislature and governor, and the stakeholders/lobbyists who advise them, should consider these principles in the development of a participatory stakeholder process for resolving the most vexing groundwater availability issues in the state, rather than continuing to defend the self-interests of one stakeholder group or set of values in preference to others.  Each ethical value or moral norm described in this article is as valid and worthy of protection as the others, and we all have an ethical responsibility to the larger communities we live and work in to join others and consider their needs in the process of resolving water availability disputes. That includes providing communities access to water based on achievable mitigation and public interest decision-making.  It also means preventing cumulative impacts to rivers and streams without effective and adequate mitigation.

The state already possesses workable water policy fundamentals in the Water Resources Act of 1971 (chapter 90.54 RCW) for the allocation of water, but has strayed from them over the last several decades to maintain consistency with a preference for instream protection before allocating water to people and communities. As a result of the state’s single-minded effort to protect instream flows, it has fallen into the trap of closing the state’s ground waters to the public, at enormous cost to people and water-short communities, without adequate public interest evaluation and with little hope of a solution.[18]  That missing public interest balance should be the focus of legislative and gubernatorial efforts to solve the water allocation problem, using stakeholders who agree to employ ethical principles to guide the decision-making process.


The author is the principle of Law Office of Thomas M. Pors in Seattle.  For additional background concerning recent Supreme Court water cases and the conflict between instream flow regulation and groundwater availability, see the author’s other articles at this link.

Background on Hirst and Foster and the Lack of Water Availability in Washington

Hirst.  The Hirst decision affects water availability in rural areas by requiring counties to protect surface waters and to independently determine whether groundwater from permit-exempt wells is “legally available” before issuing building permits or subdivision approvals under the Growth Management Act (GMA).[19]  The Court previously determined that there is no “de minimus” impairment of minimum instream flow water rights, and that “any impact” whatever to closed streams is grounds for denial of groundwater permit applications.  Because a water right application is not required for permit-exempt uses of groundwater, county decisions on building permits did not previously consider legal water availability or impairment from permit-exempt wells, and counties relied on Ecology’s advice whether such wells were regulated or not by Ecology’s instream flow rules. In Hirst, Ecology advised Whatcom County and then the courts that permit exempt wells were not regulated by the Nooksack basin instream flow rule.  However, over 1600 exempt wells in the basin undoubtedly had a cumulative impact on instream flows of the Nooksack River and tributaries, which would be worsened by another 600 or more pending applications for new exempt wells. This proliferation of unregulated and unmitigated wells prompted a challenge by environmental organizations to Whatcom County under GMA.

The Growth Management Hearings Board determined that Whatcom County’s GMA Plan and development regulations failed to protect groundwater and minimum instream flows.  The Board decision was upheld by the Supreme Court, despite Ecology’s interpretation that the Nooksack Rule did not regulate exempt wells.  While the Court’s ruling applies only to Whatcom County, its interpretation of GMA is assumed to apply to other counties as well.  The Yakama Tribe has already sued Okanogan County claiming that Hirst requires the county to protect instream flows in the Okanogan and Methow River basins from impairment by permit-exempt wells.

Since Hirst, some counties have adopted building permit moratoriums for new groundwater-based uses, and others are requiring permit applicants to prove that groundwater is legally available or will not “impair” regulatory minimum flows and closed streams.  This could add over $10,000 to the cost of building a home yet still result in appeals and legal uncertainty for both property owners and counties.

Some banks have announced they will no longer issue mortgages in rural areas for properties with wells drilled after the Hirst decision.  The problem with legal availability, however, logically extends to all properties with wells drilled after the adoption of minimum flow rules, beginning in the 1970s, because the Court’s interpretation is that permit-exempt water supplies are interruptible if junior in priority date to a minimum instream flow, and thus not suitable for domestic water supply.  This is significant, because if the Legislature does not clarify the nature of permit-exempt and instream flow water rights and resolve this interruptibility question, new cases could arise that would impact permitting for home expansion or replacement and interrupt financing or refinancing for hundreds of thousands of homes state-wide.

Foster.  For urban and suburban areas with inadequate water for future growth, and for rural areas seeking approval of new mitigation banks to deal with Hirst issues, an equally problematic Supreme Court decision is Foster v. Dept. of Ecology and City of Yelm.[20]  In Foster, the Court reversed a water right approved by Ecology for the City of Yelm, despite an extensive regional mitigation plan designed to offset impacts from a new municipal well on instream flows in the Deschutes and Nisqually Basins. The Court found that Ecology had no statutory authority to allow out-of-kind mitigation for “legal impacts” to instream flow water rights and interpreted the “overriding considerations of public interest” (OCPI) statute as applying only to temporary water uses. It is rare that year-round water for water mitigation is available to offset the impact of any groundwater use on regulated surface waters.  As a result, the issuance of new municipal water rights and water rights changes, including the creation of mitigation banks to allow permit-exempt wells in rural areas, often depends on finding the unfindable: year-round water rights available to purchase for mitigation in all areas of a basin that are potentially impacted by a groundwater withdrawal. Expensive storage and engineered aquifer recharge options may be needed to offset small flow impacts that may not impede the environmental functions of regulated streams, instead of allowing habitat or aquatic function mitigation for impacts to habitat and other aquatic functions.  These legal and financial uncertainties have caused communities like Sumner and Spanaway in Pierce County to suspend or abandon plans for new wells needed to provide safe and adequate water to the populations they serve. It also dramatically increases the costs for public water systems to upgrade aging water sources in order to provide safe and secure water to the public.

[1] The state’s integration of instream flow protection into the Water Code and the prior appropriation doctrine utilize an ownership-based policy of exclusion, treating water as a commodity rather than a resource.

[2] General Assembly Resolution 64/292 of July 28, 2010; cited in Neelke Doorn, “Water and Justice: Towards an Ethics of Water Governance,” Public Reason 5 (1): 97-114 (2013).

[3] Human Rights Council Resolution 15/9 of September 30, 2010.

[4] James Martin Schramm, “Toward and Ethic of EcoJustice,” from Moral Issues and Christian Responses, at pp. 259-63, by Patricia Beattie Jung and L. Shannon Jung, 8th ed. (2013).

[5] Dieter T. Hessel, “Religion and Ethics Focused on Sustainability,” Environmental Law Reporter, 39 ELR 10291 at 92 (April 2009).

[6] Jeremy J. Schmidt and Christiana Z. Peppard, “Water Ethics on a Human-Dominated Planet: Rationality, Context and Values in Global Governance,” WIREs Water 2014. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1043.

[7] “Finding Rural Domestic Water Solutions While Protecting Instream Resources,” Dept. of Ecology Publication 15-11-007 (August 2016).

[8] Llamas, Ramon. Water and Ethics: Use of Groundwater. France: UNESCO, 2004, p. 24.

[9] Schramm, ibid, at 260-61.

[10] Llamas, et al, ibid, at 17-18.

[11] Id.

[12] Bruce Jennings, “Principles of Water Ethics,” from: Minding Nature: August 2009, Volume 2, Number 2.

[13] Chris Pitre and Sharon Haensly, “Water for rural development: tapping the Hirst ruling,” Daily Journal of Commerce, Sept. 28, 2017.

[14] See, e.g., Erik Smith, “Tribes Dumping Big Money into Legislative Campaigns,” Wash. State Wire, Sept. 5, 2012.

[15] Recent appeals by tribes and environmental organizations challenged Ecology’s authority to allocate water for out of stream uses when it conflicts with instream flow protection, which resulted in the SwinomishFoster and Hirst decisions. These decisions protect instream flows but also impact water availability for people in rural and under-served urban areas of the state.

[16] Jennings, ibid.

[17] Jennings, ibid.

[18] It is ironic that progressive-leaning environmentalist politics have become most closely identified with this commodity driven view of “legal water availability” and that conservative-leaning rural property rights advocates have become most closely identified with the resource view of protecting human rights to access affordable water supplies.

[19] Whatcom County v. W. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hr’gs Bd. (“Hirst”), 186 Wn.2d 648 (2016).

[20] Foster v. Dept. of Ecology, 184 Wn.2d 465 (2015).

[1] “Economic Impact Research of Exempt Wells,” HR2 Research and Analytics and BIAW (Sept. 7, 2017).


Upcoming Seminars and Speaking Engagements

Tom will be speaking at three upcoming seminars on water rights topics.

On Thursday, April 14, 2016, at 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Tom will address the Washington Association of Sewer & Water Districts at the Yakima Convention Center in Yakima, Washington on the topic, “Water Availability and Permitting Issues.”

On Thursday, June 16, 2016, at 3:00 p.m., Tom will co-instruct on the subject “New Mitigated Water Rights,” at The Seminar Group’s “Water Rights in Central Washington” seminar in Wenatchee, Washington.

Law Seminars International has also invited Tom to co-chair this year’s Water Law in Washington seminar in Seattle. A date has not yet been set, but it will likely take place in late July. Tom also co-chaired this seminar last year.

Summary Judgment Denied in Bassett Case, But Four-Part Test Issue Survives to Hearing

On January 8, 2016, the Plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion in the matter of Magdalena Bassett, et al., vs. Dep’t of Ecology was argued before Judge Gary Tabor of the Thurston County Superior Court. Bassett is a declaratory judgment action challenging the validity of the Dungeness River Basin instream flow protection rule. The complaint alleges that Ecology exceeded its statutory authority in several respects, including failure to allocate water according to the maximum net benefits to the public, as required by the Water Code and the Water Resources Act of 1971. Judge Tabor allowed only one legal issue to be briefed on summary judgment — whether the four-part test for issuance of new water rights was required before Ecology adopts a minimum instream flow water right by rule. The Supreme Court opinion in Swinomish Tribal Community v. Ecology two years earlier implied that the four-part test was required for instream flow rules, because the same statute that the Court held required the four-part test for reservations adopted by rule (RCW 90.03.345) also applies equally to minimum instream flows — both are appropriations with priority dates that are adopted by rule rather than by application for permits. After hearing arguments by Tom Pors on behalf of Plaintiffs, Stephen North on behalf of Ecology, and Dan Von Seggern on behalf of the Intervenor Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP), Judge Tabor denied Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment but kept the issue alive for a hearing on the full administrative record.

Judge Tabor stated from the bench, “[I]n ruling that I do not find that there is an absolute legal requirement that there be the four-part test, that does not necessarily imply that a four-part test might not be appropriate in this case.” Thus, he denied Ecology’s request for summary judgment that the four-part test is never required for adoption of minimum flow rules as a matter of law. Judge Tabor considered arguments that the entire statutory scheme for water rights appropriation and instream flow protection required some sort of public interest evaluation, such as “maximum net benefits to the public” before all available waters in a basin were appropriated for instream flows. He stated further, “[S]o maximum benefits test, that certainly may be an issue in the administrative review, and there’s some suggestion that based on that rule the four-part test might be required.”

A summary judgment ruling in favor of Plaintiffs would have resulted in the invalidation of the Dungeness Rule because it is uncontested that Ecology did not make four-part test findings before adopting minimum flows in the Dungeness Rule. In fact, Ecology has never made four-part test findings or conducted a maximum net benefits test before adopting any of its 29 instream flow protection rules, many of which have the unintended effect of closing basins to new appropriations for domestic, municipal or other uses without rigid water for water replacement mitigation.

A hearing on the administrative record in the Bassett case is expected before the end of the year. Please contact Tom Pors if you have questions about the Dungeness Rule challenge or challenging other instream flow protection rules that exceeded Ecology’s statutory authority.

How to Fix the Water Availability Train Wreck

Last summer I presented a paper at the LSI Water Law in Washington seminar on problems with the status quo relating to water availability laws and regulations in Washington State. The paper proposed potential solutions to the rural water supply dilemma and water rights permitting breakdown after the Swinomish v. Ecology decision. Months later, the Department of Ecology and stakeholders in the Rural Water Supply Strategies Task Force briefly debated the idea I suggested of defining impairment specifically for minimum flows and closed streams and using a values-based standard for determining impairment and evaluating mitigation. Predictably, environmental groups and native American tribes balked at any new legal standards and defended the status quo, in which most minimum flow regulations have the unintended effect of closing entire basins to new appropriations of water and mitigation options are extremely limited. It is no easy task to fix problems four decades in the making, especially after the State’s own solutions have been rejected by the Supreme Court. These are, unfortunately, polarizing issues.

I recently updated my solutions paper to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in the Foster v. Ecology and City of Yelm decision on October 8, 2015, which tossed out OCPI as authority not only for out-of-kind mitigation but for any non-temporary use of water. Motions for reconsideration are still pending in that case, but it has an immediate impact on Ecology’s water rights permitting program and the rural water supply dilemma. You can read my paper concerning the Foster decision here.

I believe that the keys to solving these problems are recognizing that: (1) the status quo is not the best way to protect and enhance instream functions and values, and (2) the fundamental nature of minimum flow water rights differs from out-of-stream appropriations in so many important respects that impairment analysis and mitigation evaluation must be better matched to the purposes for which minimum flows are adopted in order to accomplish the goals of providing water for both fish and people. Much can be accomplished by interpreting the intent of groundwater provisions in existing instream flow rules. Impairment and water availability criteria must be developed that protect instream values instead of focusing only on proxy flow numbers that were established without considering the maximum net benefits for the public. This can be accomplished without retreating on the fundamental policy of protecting instream resources and without violating treaty rights.

Reasonable minds can differ on this subject. However, when the system of instream flow protection and water allocation for other purposes is broken, as it is now, stakeholders and the government need to consider workable alternatives to the status quo. It should not be about winners and losers in a regulatory battle for control of the public’s water. It is time to focus on how the public benefits most from both instream flow protection and reasonable use of water for growing populations. Until we correct the legal water availability issues related to the current one molecule impairment standard for minimum flow water rights, it’s the lawyers who will get the most benefit from the status quo.

You can download and read my updated solutions article here. Please feel free to comment on this blog or directly to the author.

Potential Solutions to Washington State’s Post-Swinomish Instream Flow Regulation/Rural Water Supply Dilemma


Department of Ecology officials and stakeholders have been meeting publicly for the last year to discuss post-Swinomish water allocation solutions for rural areas, but their efforts have been stymied by the lack of consensus on legislative or other solutions.[1] New ideas need to be explored and vetted to move beyond common misconceptions and a dysfunctional status quo. The state’s minimum instream flow rules (MIFs) protect flow numbers and probabilities rather than instream values and qualities. In adopting MIFs, Ecology failed to balance the allocation of water between instream and out-of-stream uses as directed by the legislature. A judicially-created impairment standard for MIFs fails to recognize the distinction between MIFs and appropriative rights, and resulted in the accidental closure of entire basins to new water uses.

Resistance to changing the status quo is significant, ranging from the correlation between instream flow protection and the protection of treaty fishing rights, sensitivities to altering the prior appropriation system, the shear complexity of the issues, and anti-growth objectives of some MIF proponents. In the author’s opinion, the resistance to alter the status quo is based on misconceptions and a lack of stakeholder discussion about alternative standards that could yield positive consequences for both instream values and water supply for domestic, agricultural, and municipal uses.

Click here to download a pdf of the complete article

Abstract: The current inflexible impairment standard for protection of minimum flows in the state of Washington prevents the use of science and ingenuity to solve water allocation and protection issues by restricting access to a common and vital resource in contravention of state legislative policy. The regulatory status quo has produced excessive procedural burdens and costs, uncompensated externalities, artificial water markets, and legal uncertainties for new and changing water uses in a growing economy. That’s not a status quo to be proud or protective of. Active resource management based on empirical evidence, utilizing more flexible legal standards, best available science, and realistic policy balances, would do a better job of allocating and managing water, including for protection of healthy fisheries.

What is the Purpose and Policy for Protecting Instream Flows? 

Protecting instream flows to preserve or enhance the functions and values of rivers, streams and lakes is one of the predominant policy goals of Washington’s various water resources statutes.  In 1969 the legislature authorized Ecology to adopt rules establishing “minimum flows and levels” to protect fish, game, birds, other wildlife resources, and recreational and aesthetic values. RCW 90.22.010-020. In 1971 the legislature mandated the protection of the natural environment by preserving “base flows” of perennial rivers and streams “necessary to provide for preservation of wildlife, fish, scenic, aesthetic and other environmental values, and navigational values.” RCW 90.54.020(3)(a). In this environmental era, the state shifted from a pioneer policy of maximum utilization of resources to managing water resources for the “maximum net benefit of the people of the state.” Without question, the people of the state benefit in numerous ways from the protection of instream flows.[2] The real question, however, is whether the state appropriately implemented the fundamentals of protecting and managing water resources for the maximum net benefit, or has it protected flows in a manner that unnecessarily excludes other uses or sound principles of water resource management. If the latter, how can four decades of instream flow protection be fixed? These are the post-Swinomish questions.

How do Washington’s Instream Flow Rules Diverge from State Policy?

Ecology adopted instream resource protection regulations using a methodology for setting and protecting MIFs that exceeds the legislature’s mandate to preserve “base flows” and water resources according to the maximum net benefits for the people of the state. Rather than allocating waters actually present in rivers and streams, or identifying instream values to protect against subsequent water right applications, Ecology adopted MIFs at numerical levels that “would be beneficial for fish if those flows were present in the stream,”[3] unlike other appropriations that cannot exceed the availability of water. These aspirational numerical flows are then given the status of water rights with priority dates by operation of RCW 90.03.345. New water right permits, water right changes, and new exempt water uses are restricted from impairing those MIF water rights, which by design are not met at the time of their adoption up to 90% of the time.[4] Thus, rather than preserving base flows and allocating the remaining flow between MIFs and other uses according to maximum net benefits, Ecology adopted aspirational MIFs knowing that actual stream flows were already insufficient to satisfy them. This effectively closed the basins to new appropriations because any new effect on the rivers and streams would automatically worsen the probability or degree of those unmet aspirational flows. It is often overlooked (or misrepresented as a sign of already over-appropriated rivers and streams) that MIFs which are not consistently met were designed that way from the outset.

If there was an impairment standard matched to the unique nature of these aspirational MIF water rights, Ecology could still allocate waters for other uses while protecting the values inherent in the MIF water rights. However, in Postema v. PCHB,[5] the Washington Supreme Court established a zero tolerance impairment standard that treats MIF water rights the same as appropriative water rights.[6] As a result, all other new consumptive uses of water in a watershed are virtually foreclosed after the adoption of MIF rules, unless strict water-for-water mitigation standards can be met. This general ground and surface water closure was not foreseeable when the first generation of MIF rules were adopted prior to 2001. It occurred without public notice or a rulemaking specific to the ground waters being closed to protect MIFs, in apparent contradiction to RCW 90.54.050. There was no “maximum net benefits” evaluation of this allocation of all available waters in a basin to instream flow protection while foreclosing future allocations of water to domestic and other uses.[7] As of the date of this article, neither the legislature nor the courts have reviewed whether these MIF flows exceed Ecology’s authority to allocate water according to legislative policy declarations in the Water Resources Act, including the maximum net benefits policy.[8]

What are the Contemporary Consequences of this Problem?

Since the Washington Supreme Court’s Postema decision, Ecology has had to rely on various disappearing tools to make water available for new out-of-stream uses in basins with MIF rules, including for rural domestic supply from exempt wells. In several basins it amended instream flow rules to adopt reservations of water for future out-of-stream uses that were exempt from the effect of the MIF rules, using the “overriding considerations of public interest” exception (OCPI) at RCW 90.54.030(a). One such set of reservations in the 2006 amended Skagit Basin MIF Rule, Chapter 173-503 WAC, was overturned by the Supreme Court in the Swinomish case, where the Court found that Ecology had no authority to adopt reservations using the OCPI exception after MIFs were already adopted in a basin.[9] Since the Swinomish ruling, Ecology informed local governments in the Wenatchee Basin that a similar set of reservations in the Wenatchee Basin MIF Rule, Chapter 173-545, would not survive a legal challenge and to cease processing applications to allocate the reservations to several local governments and rural areas in need of water. The lesson of Swinomish is that once a MIF rule is adopted, it is too late to balance the needs for water between instream and out-of- stream uses. That leaves rural areas in places like Skagit and Wenatchee Counties, and growing communities and rural areas statewide, with few options other than purchasing existing water rights, which may not be available.

The Supreme Court’s restriction of the OCPI tool has also impacted water rights permitting. Since the Postema case, Ecology has approved dozens of water right applications using OCPI to authorize some portion of a mitigation package that wasn’t strictly in-kind, in-place, in-time, water for water mitigation of impacts to MIFs or closed streams. Such findings were criticized by tribes and environmental groups, but after Swinomish they have been challenged as exceeding Ecology’s authority. One such finding is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court. In Foster v. Yelm, Ecology approved a regional mitigation plan that included some out-of-kind habitat mitigation where in-kind mitigation was unavailable, finding that OCPI applied. The PCHB and Thurston County Superior Court upheld the OCPI finding and resulting water right,[10] but environmental groups appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held on May 21, 2015, and a decision is pending.[11] The case challenges Ecology’s authority to approve a water right permit relying to any degree upon out-of-kind mitigation.

The trend toward elimination of exceptions and work-arounds to the MIF rules, including reservations and out-of-kind mitigation, pushes the process of allocating water for new uses to extremes that were not likely anticipated by the legislature in 1971 when it adopted the fundamentals in chapter 90.54 RCW. Rural property owners in the Skagit basin, for example, cannot obtain building permits for single family homes until mitigation projects beyond their control are implemented by Ecology and third parties, prompting lawsuits against county government and potential constitutional challenges.[12] Without a legislative solution, Ecology and many local governments must rely on expensive and incomplete mitigation solutions that penalize certain sectors of society and enrich others. Rural landowners, farmers, and communities without reserves of inchoate water rights are being forced by the continuation of the status quo to subsidize the purchase of private water rights and establish mitigation banks, which encourages speculation in water rights at the expense of the public and removes farm land from irrigation. Many believe that these funds would be more effectively spent on regional conservation, habitat measures and water quality mitigation. Many people, including legislators and Ecology officials, also believe that the level of administrative burden of enforcing MIF protections as against minute impacts is excessive and unsustainable.

Restated, the consequence of protecting aspirational flow numbers as water rights, instead of protecting instream functions and values, is an inflexible water allocation system built on false assumptions, inadequate public disclosure, and the failure to accomplish other fundamental state policy objectives for the allocation of state waters.

What’s So Bad about the Status Quo?

In my opinion the inertia behind the status quo, including resistance to finding solutions, is largely due to a broad misconception that the status quo supports the goals of Native American tribes and environmental groups, who may possess sufficient political capital to block legislative reforms. Why bother trying to fix it legislatively if it will blocked from passage or vetoed? The misconception is that an inflexible numerical MIF standard is the best way to protect or enhance the instream values for which MIFs were adopted. First, using the status quo impairment standard to prevent new uses protects only the numerical, aspirational MIFs from becoming somewhat less probable than the probability level of their creation, without requiring evidence that any instream value (such as fish habitat) would be impacted, or allowing mitigation for the impacted value rather than the flow. Because the impairment standard regards “any effect” on a probability of numerical flow as requiring denial, there is no consideration of an application’s ability to manage water or provide mitigation in a way that offsets or improves any instream values, such as water temperature or fish habitat. This leaves Ecology in the position of denying applications that have no appreciable impact on, or that could enhance, instream values. The ability to provide habitat or water quality enhancements is magnified for regional or county-wide projects, but the status quo does not give watershed planning groups, county governments, other resource management agencies, or innovative property owners/applicants a pathway for creating available water for new uses by improving instream values. The current inflexible numerical impairment standard does not permit this kind of trade-off, even though an effect on the probability of flow is itself only a probability, not a certainty, of an effect on instream values.

Second, aspirational MIF rules and the inflexible numerical impairment standard that stops growth have already caused the legislature to consider numerous bills to fix the problem, thereby upsetting the status quo or leaving it in jeopardy. This trend will continue as additional basins face the kind of issues seen recently in Skagit, Kittitas, Whatcom, and Clallam Counties.

Third, what about the externalities, or hidden costs, of the status quo on communities and rural property owners, including the agricultural community and businesses and trades based on agricultural services, home construction and sales? Assuming that the status quo (closure of water resources to new uses) is advantageous for citizens who live in water-abundant communities and like to travel, fish and recreate in areas with protected natural rivers and streams, is it ethical to transfer the cost of closing the resource to those who lack access to it, regardless of the ability to condition that access appropriately to avoid overuse and degradation? Access to water is widely considered to be a fundamental human right. Shouldn’t there be compensation paid by the public to those denied access to a common resource in the name of protecting public values? Our bedrock legal concepts of due process, equal protection, and proscription against takings without just compensation are seemingly violated by artificial closures and inflexible impairment and mitigation standards. It’s only a matter of time until these legal rights are asserted against state and local government by those most-affected by the status quo.

Finally, Ecology is tasked by the legislature with not only protecting instream values, but with enhancing them where possible. RCW 90.54.020(3). If the answer to an application or an exempt well water use that might impact a probability of a numerical flow has to be “no,” Ecology is stymied in its ability to approve such applications and uses that could be conditioned to enhance the quality of river and streams. Thus the status quo is not helping Ecology accomplish the mandate to enhance instream quality.[13]

Why wouldn’t Native American tribes and environmental groups support the concept of conditioning water rights or exempt well usage to maintain or improve instream values? Certainly there is considerable inertia behind the status quo and fear that creating new standards will cause a backsliding of instream protection.[14] Such fears, however, prevent the possibility of improving the quality of rivers and streams through a more flexible, values-based standard.

If allowed to persist, the misconception that the status quo adequately protects instream values will kick the problematic status of flawed numerical MIFs and impairment standards forever down the road, toward more piecemeal litigation, over-allocation of public funds and administrative energy on minute impacts, discrimination against rural land owners and land uses, an unfunded shifting of regulatory burdens from state to local governments, and creation of artificial markets for water rights that divert funding away from fish habitat restoration and innovative water resource management techniques. Stakeholder, agency, and legislative recognition of this fact could speed discussion and development of long-term solutions that are more just, reasonable, and efficient than perpetuation of a flawed status quo.

The author proposes an alternative method of determining how instream flows and closed streams are impacted by new or changed water uses, and how those impacts can be mitigated. It would require legislative authorization to make these changes in basins with existing numerical MIF rules. Before describing the alternative, it is necessary to describe how MIF water rights differ from appropriative water rights, including how and why they merit a unique impairment standard.

How are Instream Flow Water Rights Different than Appropriative Water Rights?

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s assumption in Postema and Swinomish, MIFs are different by their nature than appropriative rights. The Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) has recognized that MIFs are regulatory, with a different bundle of sticks representing different aspects of a property right than water rights diverted or withdrawn from a source, used for a specific purpose, and subject to a set of conditions and qualifications.[15] As with other regulations but unlike the priority system for appropriative rights, a MIF becomes a condition of all water right permits issued after the effective date of the rule, even if the priority date of the permit is senior to the MIF rule.  To the contrary, the priority of appropriative water rights as against all other appropriative water rights is determined solely by the date of application. RCW 90.03.340.

Another significant difference is that appropriative rights require findings under the 4-part test of RCW 90.03.290 that water is available and its appropriation would serve the public interest. In creating MIFs, Ecology allocated water that was not available a large percentage of time, and Ecology did not make findings that MIFs would serve the maximum net benefits. MIFs were therefore established in a manner very different from appropriative rights under the Water Code.[16]

The Supreme Court acknowledged that MIFs can be modified by rule just as they are adopted by rule, and not only by increasing the flow.[17] In OWL v. KGH last year, the PCHB rejected arguments that numeric MIFs are “perfected water rights” that must be protected irrespective of Ecology’s authority to modify MIF rules. While the Supreme Court in Postema and Swinomish recognized that a MIF established in rule and a water right authorized through the permit process both have a priority date and are afforded protection from impairment by later issued or junior rights, they also recognized that other attributes are different. An appropriative water right is a vested property right for the water applied to beneficial use, and as such, it is alienable, transferable, and afforded the constitutional protection of due process and the prohibition against takings.[18] MIFs operate in a regulatory manner and do not have these same attributes. MIFs are tailored to address the instream flow needs for each basin and can and should be modified to ensure the rules are in accord with watershed plans and fundamental water resources principles.[19]

The legislature implicitly recognized a distinction between MIFs and appropriative rights in 1997 when it mandated an end to the moratorium on issuing new water rights from the Columbia River.[20] Ecology complied by amending the Columbia Basin MIF rules to create an alternative case-by-case consultation process for permits issued after July 27, 1997, the purpose of which was to evaluate impacts on fish from a proposed permit.[21] In other words, WAC 173-531A-060 authorized a values-based approach to determining impacts and mitigation on fish as an alternative to the numerical MIF rules. The implementation of this regulation was challenged last year in OWL v. KGH by environmental groups who opposed Ecology’s authority, even under the Columbia Basin rules, to authorize out-of-kind mitigation for new water rights impacting an MIF. The PCHB held that Ecology did possess the authority to allow out-of-kind mitigation. However, because of the lack of legislative guidance on impairment of MIFs, the PCHB’s strained attempt at finding a values-based approach that complied with Swinomish was enough to prompt the applicant to propose accepting the MIF conditions instead.[22]

Once before the PCHB opened the door to the evaluation of MIFs and stream closures differently than impairment of appropriative water rights. However, the threat of litigation to protect the status quo has apparently squelched this effort. In Squaxin Island Tribe v. Ecology (Miller Land & Timber) the PCHB reconciled the groundwater standard contained in the Deschutes River MIF at WAC 173-513-050 (“clear adverse impact upon the surface water system”) with the Postema standard for impacts to closed streams under the availability prong of the four-part test (“any effect on the flow or level of the surface water”) to create a values-based impairment standard as follows:

“[G]roundwater withdrawals in the Deschutes Basin constitute a clear adverse impact and are subject to that WAC chapter’s provisions, if the withdrawals produce any effects which adversely impact the values identified in WAC 173-513-020. If the Squaxin Tribe is able to demonstrate such an impact, then the water is not available within the meaning of RCW 90.03.290 and the groundwater permits at issue must be set aside. Consistent with the finding in Postema, the terms “verified” and “clearly” as used in this rule mean ascertainable through best available science.”[23]

This attempt at melding the Postema impairment standard with the values underlying an MIF rule failed to catch on as a basis for Ecology decisions on water right applications, but it could serve as a model for a legislatively-adopted impairment standard for MIF rules and closed streams.

What are the Potential Solutions to the Problem?

  1. Values-Based Impairment and Mitigation Standards for Instream Flows.

As demonstrated above, there is precedent from the legislature and PCHB for a values-based approach to protecting instream flows and preserving protected fish species. This new approach begins with the recognition that MIFs are different than appropriative water rights, therefore to serve the maximum public interest the evaluation of impacts and mitigation needs to match the nature of these unique water rights.

Methodologies need to be developed for protecting instream flows by identifying and protecting instream qualities and values from degradation while opening the door to enhancing those values and providing new water uses for domestic, agricultural and other beneficial uses of water. Best available science should be used to substantiate findings of impact to values and mitigation of those impacts. This can lead to better results for instream values without closing entire basins to new water rights and exempt water uses. For example, enhancing streamside habitat to improve temperature, shading and holding areas for migrating salmon may accomplish far more protection of instream values than insisting on bucket for bucket in-kind, in-place, in-kind water replacement as with the current standards. Statutory authority should be created to authorize alternative standards for determining impairment and mitigation of instream values, so that MIF rules do not function solely as a means for protecting the status quo and preventing development.

There is precedent for values-based water resource mitigation standards in our laws protecting wetlands and water quality. RCW 90.74.020 allows for compensatory mitigation approaches and recognizes the efficacy of out-of-kind/out of place mitigation in some scenarios. Ecology is required under this statute to “fully review and give due consideration to compensatory mitigation proposals that improve the overall biological functions and values of the watershed.” This approach works in the wetlands context because wetland functions and values aren’t protected by proxy water rights that are themselves protected by the prior appropriation impairment standard. The use of wetland classification systems, setbacks, buffers, and monitoring programs are examples of the ability to identify differing degrees of impact and mitigation and to provide for margins of safety and predictability.

The focus of protecting public water resources should similarly shift to identifying and protecting the functions and values of instream flows instead of using proxy water rights and a judicially-defined impairment standard that treats de minimus impacts to instream values the same as impairment of senior water rights.[24] This alternative would allow more flexibility and opportunity to manage water resources for new and more efficient uses while creating opportunities to restore and enhance watershed functions on a watershed level. It would provide tools to identify and finance mitigation projects, allowing valuable public and private resources to be used to restore fish habitat, water quality and other watershed functions instead of creating artificial water right markets that eliminate beneficial uses of water instead of restoring watershed functions.

One way to accomplish a values-based approach is to statutorily define “impairment” of a MIF or closed stream as “a proposed use of water that appreciably impacts or decreases a fundamental instream value which the MIF or stream closure was adopted to protect.” Best available science should be required to support such determinations. If an impact on one or more instream values is determined, mitigation could be proposed by an applicant to offset that impact (e.g., by providing fish habitat enhancements or recreational access), without necessarily requiring offset of the effect of a new water use on the probability of an aspirational flow.

An important benefit to defining impairment of a MIF is that it does not necessitate invalidating or amending existing MIF rules. They can remain on the books as proxies for instream values, including the importance of flow itself as a component of fish habitat and water quality. MIFs will continue to serve as important conditions on existing water right permits, and such conditions may be appropriate either outright or as mitigation triggers for new applications in the future.

A MIF-specific impairment definition and values-based mitigation standard does not need to replace numeric MIFs or the Postema standard, but could be authorized by the legislature as an alternative to the application of the current MIFs and standards. This is essentially what the legislature and Ecology did with the 1998 amendments to the Columbia River MIFs. The PCHB has recognized the legality in principle of this alternative, and has opened the door to protecting MIF values as an alternative to protecting aspirational flow numbers. In OWL v. KGH, the PCHB concluded:

Thus, while the numeric flows of WAC 173-563-040 do not apply to the Permit, the values that gave rise to the permit in the first instance must be protected. In other words, Ecology cannot issue a permit pursuant to the consultation process that impairs the instream flow values that stand behind the established minimum instream flows, and Ecology must demonstrate how such values are adequately protected and how the water right associated with those values is not impaired. This conclusion is consistent with the Board’s parallel conclusion above, that with the consultation process, Ecology is bound to ensure base flows in the Columbia River are protected. In the absence of a showing by Ecology that the conditions of the Permit protect base flows necessary for the preservation of the instream flow values, the Board cannot assess whether the mitigation conditions offered by an applicant for a water right address the recognized depletion of water in the Columbia River (or any other river) by the permit at hand, or in perpetuity and cumulatively.[25]

This ruling highlights the difficulty of changing or bypassing impairment/mitigation standards without affecting the fundamentals of water resource policy. It also demonstrates the opportunity for accomplishing the task. The goal is to find suitable standards and practices, adopted by the legislature to avoid future litigation, that result in real and effective mitigation of impacts on instream functions and values. One way to find the right projects and compromises on a watershed level is to authorize watershed planning units to propose and Ecology to adopt alternative standards to existing MIFs, using protection of functions and values in place of numerical flows. The legislature could authorize and fund one or more pilot projects to develop such standards and put them into practice. Planning units in already impacted watersheds including the Skagit, Nooksack, Wenatchee and Dungeness WRIAs may be a good place to start this process, which would involve stakeholders from across the spectrum of water users.

  1. Mitigation Flexibility without New Impairment Standard.

A less universal and less useful alternative to defining impairment of a MIF is for the legislature to authorize additional means of mitigating or avoiding impacts to MIFs, without changing the impairment standard. This alternative would be harder to square with Postema and Swinomish, and could lead to litigation or constitutional challenges based on the concept that MIFs are the same as appropriative water rights and must be protected from impairment in the same manner. Nevertheless, the legislature can authorize or direct Ecology to consider alternatives to in-kind, in-place, in-time mitigation of impacts to MIFs. RCW 90.03.255 and 90.44.055 already require Ecology to consider the provision of water impoundments and “other resource management techniques” as a means of offsetting or avoiding impacts to MIFs and senior water rights. These statutes could be expanded to provide for out-of-kind mitigation of smaller withdrawals and flexibility in the time and place of in-kind mitigation with respect to resolving impairment of MIFs and effects on closed streams.

  1. Effect of Values-Based Standards on Treaty Rights.

How would a new impairment standard and set of mitigation tools help to protect the treaty fishing rights of Native American tribes? In consultations with treaty tribes concerning pending water right applications, I have learned that the creation or enhancement of fish habitat is often preferred by tribes to the exhaustive and expensive process of modelling and compensating for diffuse impacts to instream flow from groundwater withdrawals. Why dribble water into a river with over 1000 times the flow when you can create riparian shade and rearing habitat instead? There is also the precedent of the 1998 amendments to the Columbia River MIFs, which require consultation with tribal and governmental fisheries managers to create a mitigation package that would be acceptable as an alternative to MIF conditions on a water right permit. The consultation for the irrigation water right in OWL v. KGH resulted in a $6 million mitigation payment package that Ecology would use to fund habitat projects, and received the blessing of the Columbia River tribes. A functions and values approach to mitigation of impacts to instream flows would presumably integrate consultation with tribal, state and federal fisheries managers, as well as best available science, to insure that fisheries resources and tribal treaty rights were not impacted.

  1. Consideration of Full Hydrological Cycle.

Another alternative solution to consider in the context of protecting instream flows, which could increase the potential for new development without changing impairment standards, is a requirement to consider the full hydrological cycle for new uses of water. The current impairment standards are overly precautious in that they focus only on one aspect of the effect of new development – the withdrawal of water.  New uses of groundwater not only withdraw water from an aquifer, they are also incidental to land use changes including land clearing, septic systems and storm water retention/infiltration that returns water to the aquifers, often at a higher elevation and greater quantity relative to streams than their withdrawals. The current standards ignore these benefits and offsets. Statutory directives to consider the full range of hydrologic cycle effects should be developed and recommended, perhaps as amendments to RCW 90.44.055 and the domestic ground water exemption at RCW 90.44.050. Serious consideration should also be given to exempting de minimus withdrawals, such as rural in-house domestic uses, from the regulatory effect of minimum instream flows and stream closures, consistent with constitutionally protected property rights and common sense use of our limited regulatory resources.[26]

  1. OCPI

The use of the “overriding considerations of the public interest” exception has been criticized and litigated because it has assumed the importance of a safety valve for Ecology from the otherwise unworkable numeric instream flow impairment standard. Legislative direction on the scope and use of OCPI would be helpful, and legislative preservation of OCPI findings in existing instream flow rules after Swinomish would preserve the tough bargains already made in several watersheds to increase instream flows in exchange for reservations of water for certain out-of-stream uses. OCPI is not a complete solution to the current conflicts, however, and should not be relied upon as the most practical alternative.


It is an enormous challenge to change a water resource protection system four decades in the making, including several Supreme Court decisions interpreting key statutes and phrases. I’ve tried to explain why the status quo violates state water resource policy, the consequences of maintain the status quo, and how it could be changed for the better. I expect opposition but hope for constructive criticism and an open debate about the paths ahead. To summarize the reasons to move this discussion forward, there is precedent for the use of a values-based approach to protecting instream flows from the effects of new water rights and exempt water uses, whereas the current MIF regulatory system:

  1. Fails to account for basic human water needs and economic development consistent with fundamentals of state water allocation policy and GMA planning;
  2. Overspends scarce state and local financial and personnel resources on marginal impacts from permit-exempt wells for domestic uses, when it could focus on protecting and enhancing instream values;
  3. Fails to address the externalities of closing a common resource, one most people would agree to be a fundamental human right, or to account for basic constitutional limits of regulation on property owners, which are the underpinnings of the permit exemption; and
  4. Fails to utilize appropriate science for managing the resource or to use available data and focused studies to make real-time, science-based decisions regarding impairment and mitigation.


Tom Pors has been practicing law since 1982 and focuses on water rights permitting and transfers in the state of Washington, land use and environmental law, Endangered Species Act compliance, and real estate and regulatory work for water utilities, resorts, and local government.  He is a frequent author and lecturer on the subject of water rights. You can visit his website at

Water rights stakeholders, state and local officials, attorneys, consultants and the public are invited to comment on this article, other developments concerning the Swinomish decision and rural water supply issues, and potential legislative fixes at. Use the reply window following this article or click on “comment” to post your comments. You can also send me an email to


[1] See “Finding Rural Domestic Water Solutions While Protecting Instream Resources,” Ecology publication no. 15-11-007 (revised June 2015):

[2] Protection of instream flows also appears to serve the purpose of protecting tribal instream flow treaty rights, which tends to forestall the need to adjudicate such rights in state or federal court.

[3] Ecology, “Introduction to Instream Flows and Instream Flow Rules,”

[4] Ecology’s August 27, 2014 presentation to the Rural Water Supply Strategies Workgroup on instream flow science admitted to capping fish-friendly instream flow levels at the 10% exceedance level during low flow seasons, typically August through September. A 10% exceedance flow means that it is predicted to be available in the river only 10% of the time. Conversely, such flows are predicted to be unmet 90% of the time.

[5] Postema v. Pollution Control Hearings Bd., 142 Wn.2d 68, 11 P.3d 726 (2000).

[6] “The statutes do not authorize a de minimis impairment of an existing right.” 142 Wn.2d at 81.

[7] For a more in depth discussion of the instream flow rule/ground water closure problem, see my article, “How Messed Up is Washington’s Water Allocation System After Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology?”

[8] A challenge to the validity of the Dungeness River MIF rule (chapter 173-518 WAC) is pending in Thurston County Superior Court. Bassett and Olympic Resource Protection Council v. Ecology seeks invalidation of the Dungeness Rule under the Administrative Procedure Act for, among other claims, exceeding Ecology’s statutory authority.

[9] Swinomish v. Ecology, 178 Wn.2d 571, 311 P.3d 6 (2013).

[10] Foster v. Ecology and City of Yelm, PCHB No. 11-155 (Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order, March 18, 2013).

[11] Supreme Court Case No. 90386-7.

[12] See, e.g., Fox v. Skagit County, appeal pending, Court of Appeals No. 733150-I.

[13] Ecology could still get there for water right applicants using OCPI, but under the status quo such decisions have been appealed and are likely to continue being appealed.

[14] A more skeptical view is that the status quo has been used a means of controlling growth and land use changes in areas where opponents do not desire it, primarily in rural areas.

[15] See Okanogan Wilderness League v. Ecology and Kennewick General Hospital (OWL v. KGH), PCHB No 13-146, July 31, 2104 Order on Motions for Summary Judgment at footnote 9, p. 23.

[16] In Swinomish, the Supreme Court held that the adoption of reservations required application of the 4-part test of RCW 90.03.290 because reservations have the standing of appropriations under RCW 90.03.345. 178 Wn.2d at 588-89. RCW 90.03.345 applies equally to minimum flows, which creates legal uncertainty whether existing MIFs were appropriately adopted if there were no findings under the 4-part test.

[17] RCW 90.54.040(2); Swinomish, 178 Wn.2d at 591 fn. 13.

[18] Ecology v. Grimes, 121 Wn.2d 459, 477-78, 852 P.2d 1055 (1993); Ecology v. Acquavella, 100 Wn.2d 651,656, 674 P.2d 160 (1983).

[19] RCW 90.54.040(2); Swinomish, 178 Wn.2d at 591 n. 13.

[20] Washington State Laws of 1997, ch. 439 (ESHB 1110).

[21] Chapters 173-531A and 173-563 WAC.

[22] Order Denying Summary Judgment, Vacatur, and Final Judgment Under CR 54(b) (Dec. 12, 2014).

[23] Squaxin Island Tribe v. Ecology, PCHB No. 05-137 (2006).

[24] It is helpful in this context to remember that MIFs are proxies for the instream values, including aesthetics, recreation, water quality, and fish habitat, that are protected by adoption of a MIF. An effect on the proxy, especially a small one, does not necessarily equate to an effect on the values protected by the proxy. An effect in one place may be offset by a benefit in another, such that one or more values being protected by the proxy may in fact be unaffected or even improved. On the other hand, if impairment (and hence mitigation) are based solely on protecting a proxy flow by use of the prior appropriation system, then opportunities to do a better job protecting the values inherent in the proxy are lost.

[25] PCHB No 13-146, July 31, 2104 Order on Motions for Summary Judgment, p. 24.

[26] Exceptions may be needed in the Yakima Basin in order to protect adjudicated senior water rights.

Appeals Court Reverses GMHB Ruling re Whatcom County in Hirst Case: Permit-Exempt Wells Not Governed by Nooksack Instream Flow Rule

Whatcom County has won its appeal in a closely watched case at the intersection of water rights and land use law. Division One of the Washington Court of Appeals held that the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board erroneously interpreted the Nooksack Basin Instream Flow Rule, Chapter 173-501 WAC, and reversed the Board’s rulings that Whatcom County was out of compliance with the Growth Management Act (GMA).[1] The ruling, in what has become known as the Hirst case, rejected a presumption by the Board that new permit-exempt wells will impair closed streams and minimum flows in basins with instream flow protection rules. The Court of Appeals also rejected the Board’s statutory interpretation that counties must make independent determinations of “legal availability” of groundwater before issuing building permits or approving subdivisions, especially where such determinations could be inconsistent with Department of Ecology interpretations of its own instream flow rules.

The case began with challenges by Eric Hirst and Futurewise to Whatcom County’s comprehensive plan and development regulations on grounds that, among other things, they failed to include adequate provisions to protect ground and surface waters with respect to individual permit-exempt wells. GMA requires counties that plan under GMA to include a rural element consistent with GMA’s goals, including measures to protect critical areas and surface and groundwater resources.[2] In Kittitas County v. E. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd.,[3] the Supreme Court held that Kittitas County’s development regulations violated GMA because they didn’t prevent daisy-chaining of multiple permit-exempt wells for projects under common ownership or a common scheme of development, which allowed developers to violate limitations on the use of permit-exempt wells.[4]  The Supreme Court held that growth management hearings boards have jurisdiction over petitions challenging whether development regulations violate GMA provisions such as the requirement to protect groundwater resources and RCW 19.27.097 and 58.17.110, which require counties to assure adequate potable water is available when issuing building permits and approving subdivisions. While holding that counties are responsible for land use decisions that affect groundwater resources, the Court also recognized the statutory role of Ecology, adding “[Ecology] ought to assist counties in their land use planning to adequately protect water resources.” This assistance is discussed further below.

The primary issue in the Hirst case relates to the significance of Ecology’s instream flow rule for the Nooksack Basin, Chapter 173-501 WAC, and whether it prohibits new exempt well uses that may impair closed streams and minimum flows. The Board interpreted the Nooksack Rule as precluding new permit-exempt uses as a matter of law, and ruled that the County’s measures to protect water availability did not comply with GMA because they allowed the use of permit-exempt wells except “where [Ecology] has determined by rule that water for development does not exist.” The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Board erroneously interpreted the law as requiring the County to make its own separate determination of legal water availability. It ruled that the County complied with its statutory responsibility and the Kittitas decision by invoking the assistance of Ecology regarding the availability question. Ecology had advised the County about exempt wells and submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Court of Appeals interpreting the Nooksack Rule as not applying to permit-exempt water uses, thus rendering them legally available for the issuance of building permits in rural areas in the Nooksack basin. The Court also held that the Board erroneously relied upon a December 2011 letter from Ecology to Snohomish County relating to restrictions against permit-exempt wells under a different basin rule with different language, finding that the letter had nothing to do with the Nooksack Rule.

The Hirst and Futurewise appellants argued that the Board’s determination of non-compliance with GMA was consistent with Supreme Court precedent interpreting water availability vis-à-vis instream flow rules. In Postema v. PCHB,[5] the Court held that ground water is not available if its withdrawal would have “any effect” on a stream closed to further appropriation, or if it would impair a minimum flow established by regulation. The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments because Postema addressed issues arising from “applications” for water rights, not permit-exempt withdrawals, and because the appellants’ argument conflicts with Postema by assuming a uniform interpretation of instream flow rules.

Ecology’s interpretation of the Nooksack Rule was key to the result in the Hirst case. The question remains, however, how Ecology will interpret other instream flow rules and whether those interpretations will lead to GMA appeals or rural building moratoriums in other counties. In many of Ecology’s instream flow rules, in-house domestic uses are exempted. In others, Ecology is required to consider the “natural interrelationship between ground and surface waters” with no specific exemption for permit-exempt water uses. In at least eight watersheds, Ecology invoked “overriding considerations of public interest” (OCPI) to reserve water for out-of-stream uses that conflict with instream flows, reservations that are now legally suspect after Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Dep’t of Ecology.[6] In the Skagit, Dungeness and Upper Yakima basins, rural property owners are already restricted from obtaining building permits without mitigation, and mitigation through local water banks is not available everywhere it is needed.

Ecology’s Water Resources Program is updating its advice to counties regarding water availability determinations like those made in the Hirst case.  The status of Ecology’s project, which involves a large stakeholder group, can be followed on Ecology’s website[7] or through participation in the Water Resources Advisory Committee. Ecology’s goal is to develop an updated set of water availability guidelines for each watershed by the end of 2015. That guidance could lead to GMA appeals in some counties with the goal of preventing new building permits based on permit-exempt wells. It could also lead to litigation on the key issue in the Hirst case – whether instream flow rules should be interpreted as requiring denial of building permits and subdivision approvals with permit-exempt water supplies.  The impact of that on counties, rural land usage, and property rights would be significant, raising constitutional issues and increasing pressure on the legislature for a solution. The author of this article would not be surprised if the Hirst case is appealed to the Supreme Court, or if other challenges like it pop up in other counties.

[1] Whatcom County v. Western Wash. Growth Mgt. Hearings Bd., Ct. App. Div. 1, Case No. 70796-5-1 (Feb. 23, 2015).

[2] RCW 36.70A.070(5)(c)(iv).

[3] Kittitas County v. E. Wash. Growth Mgmt. Hearings Bd., 172 Wn.2d 144, 256 P.3d 1193 (2011). 

[4] See Dept. of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 43 P.23d 4 (2002) (common project involving division of land can only qualify for one group domestic permit-exempt well for groundwater use up to 5,000 gallons per day).

[5] Postema v. PCHB, 142 Wn.2d 68, 11 P.3d 726 (2000).

[6] Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Dep’t of Ecology, 178 Wash.2d 571, 311 P.3d 6 (2013).


Ecology Director Denies Petition to Repeal Skagit Instream Flow Rule

On January 15, 2015, Ecology Director Maia Bellon denied the latest petition to amend or repeal the 2001 Skagit Basin Instream Flow Rule (Chapter 173-503 WAC), which had been reinstated as a result of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology. The petition was filed in NOvember 2014 by attorney Bill Clarke on behalf of a group of realtors, builders, farmers and the Just Water Alliance. The rationales of the petition were numerous, and included inconsistencies with the 1996 Skagit MOA and state statutes by prohibiting new permit-exempt wells in rural areas. In particular, the petition asserted that the Skagit Rule was damaging water resource management efforts around Washington State, that efforts to provide relief to Skagit Basin property owners through mitigation were being misspent, and that the mitigation effort “perpetuates a fundamentally flawed, unlawful, and unfair regulation.”

Director Bellon’s response perpetuates Ecology’s questionable interpretation of its obligations under the Water Resources Act (chapter 90.54 RCW) as requiring the protection of instream flows at levels higher than natural flows, which results in de facto closures of basins to new year-round consumptive uses of water, without first accounting for out-of-stream needs for human consumption and economic growth. In the Skagit, hundreds of rural property owners are in legal limbo with no valid water right for their homes and others cannot obtain building permits until mitigation is in place, which is not guaranteed. Director Bellon admitted that the situation in the Skagit is difficult, but stated that “[U]nder current law, we could not successfully develop a rule for the Skagit Basin that would create available water for future community growth in rural areas, without a high likelihood of being legally challenged.”

The January 15 letter contains a glimmer of hope for rural property owners in the Skagit. The petition also requested an alternative remedy that Ecology interpret the Skagit Rule as not requiring tributary-based mitigation for permit-exempt uses, and that compliance with the Rule will solely be based on measurement of impacts at the Skagit River main stem gauge in Mount Vernon. This would allow rural property owners in tributary basins to obtain building permits with permit-exempt well systems once a mitigation package for the main stem Skagit River is in place, a feasible project that is expected to be announced in the near future. Ecology agreed that a plain language interpretation of the Skagit Rule would allow junior permit-exempt groundwater uses that would not interfere with instream flows as measured at the Mount Vernon gauge. However, Director Bellon warns that such solutions may be challenged by third parties and would not meet the public interest test for applications that require permits under the Water Code.

With the Fox v. Skagit County case awaiting a final order, the ball is now in Skagit County’s court to determine whether this solution for permit-exempt groundwater uses should be implemented without further action by Ecology or third parties, including the Swinomish Tribe, potentially risking legal challenges against the County. The Petitioners may also challenge the validity of the Skagit Rule in court under the Administrative Procedure Act.