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.

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Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Municipal Water Law (Again)

In what appears to have been an agonizing 6-3 decision by the Washington Supreme Court (it took over 20 months to issue a decision after oral argument), the municipal water law of 2003 (MWL)[i] has been upheld against an as-applied constitutional challenge.  The new decision in Cornelius v. Ecology[ii] resolves substantial uncertainty about the legal effect of the MWL as applied to water rights that meet the MWL’s statutory definition of “municipal water supply purposes” but were issued prior to 2003 with a “domestic” or “community domestic” purpose of use.

Appellant Scott Cornelius and others challenged decisions by the Department of Ecology approving several water right change applications by Washington State University, contending that most of WSU’s water rights were relinquished for nonuse prior to the MWL, and that “resurrection” of these relinquished rights violated separation of powers and due process. This was the first “as-applied” challenge to the MWL after the Supreme Court upheld the MWL against facial constitutional challenges in Lummi Indian Nation v. State, 170 Wn.2d 247, 241 P.3d 1220 (2010).

The key distinction between Justice Owens’ majority opinion and Chief Justice Madsen’s dissent is in their characterization of the nature of the problem resolved by the legislature in 2003, and the constitutionality of applying that resolution retroactively. To understand this distinction, it is necessary to review the history of water rights relinquishment law and the case that led to the MWL, Ecology v. Theodoratus, 135 Wn.2d 582, 957 P.2d 1241 (1998).

Washington’s water laws are based on the prior appropriation doctrine — “first in time is first in right.” This system focuses on the beneficial use of water as the measure of a water right and the means of perfecting those rights. However, many decades ago Ecology and its predecessor agency issued permits and certificates based on a user’s need and capacity rather than on actual beneficial use. This capacity approach, called “pumps and pipes,” was rejected by the Supreme Court in Theodoratus as the basis for perfecting a water right.[iii] The Court, however, stated that its decision did not involve “municipal water suppliers, which are treated differently under the statutory scheme. In 1967, the legislature adopted statutory relinquishment for nonuse of water without legal excuse for a period of five consecutive years. RCW 90.14.130 et seq.  Water rights that are “claimed for a municipal water supply purpose” are exempt from statutory relinquishment. However, despite the importance of this distinction between “municipal” and other purposes, the statutes did not define who qualified as a “municipal water supplier” or which uses qualified as “municipal water supply purposes.” This ambiguity particularly impacted water systems not owned by cities but that functioned liked municipal water systems, such as those owned by universities, water districts, public utility districts, cooperatives and homeowners associations, and privately-owned and regulated water service companies.

The uncertainty after Theodoratus concerning the validity of “pumps and pipes” certificates and relinquishment led to the legislature’s adoption of the MWL, which defined “municipal water supplier” and “municipal water supply purposes” and declared that water right certificates issued prior to September 8, 2003 for “municipal water supply purposes” based on system capacity were in good standing. The constitutionality of these provisions and others were challenged in Lummi Indian Nation. While the Court held in that case that the MWL did not facially violate separation of powers or due process, it left for another day whether the MWL would violate these constitutional provisions “as-applied” to the facts in a particular case. That case was Cornelius, which brings me back to the key distinction between the majority and dissenting opinions.

Justice Owens’ majority opinion concluded that the meaning of “municipal” in the context of water rights purpose of use and relinquishment was undefined and ambiguous prior to the 2003 MWL and constituted a “labeling problem” that the legislature sought to resolve in passing the MWL. She noted that prior to 1967, for instance, Ecology did not have a reason to be precise about distinguishing municipal and domestic uses, and could have issued domestic supply certificates to entities that functioned as municipal and vice versa, a situation that it recognized in the record relating to WSU. The majority refused to elevate “form over substance” and held that under the MWL, WSU is deemed to have always been a municipal water supplier. That construction of the MWL’s problem and solution led directly to the majority’s conclusion that separation of powers was not violated because it did not upset any adjudicated facts (there had been no finding prior to the MWL that WSU’s water rights were non-municipal or relinquished for nonuse). Similarly, the majority concluded that Cornelius’s due process rights were not violated because the MWL did not “resurrect” any senior water rights. Because WSU’s water rights were always “municipal” despite their label, they were always in good standing and the retroactive application of the MWL did not alter their status or priority compared to Cornelius’s junior water rights.

Chief Justice Madsen’s dissent did not recognize the existence of the same definitional ambiguity prior to the MWL, and would have found WSU’s rights already relinquished by nonuse because they were domestic, not municipal. That distinction is key because all of Cornelius’s constitutional claims stem from the concept that the MWL changed the status of WSU’s water rights from relinquished and invalid domestic rights to municipal rights in good standing. If the dissent had prevailed, the MWL as applied to the facts of the case would have violated separation of powers by retroactively altering the legal status of a water right, and would have violated Cornelius’s due process rights by resurrecting a senior water right with priority over Cornelius’s junior water right in a water-short basin.

The majority decision in Cornelius resolves a state-wide uncertainty affecting an unknown number of water rights issued prior to the MWL which meet the “municipal water supply purposes” definition, but which may have experienced a five-year or more nonuse period prior to 2003.  Such water rights can now be categorized as municipal and exempt from statutory relinquishment, with the result that communities dependent on such rights can rely on them for future growth (subject, of course, to availability and senior water rights).

Please call Tom Pors at (206) 357-8570 if you have any questions about the Cornelius case or municipal water rights in general. He can assess the scope, validity, and flexibility of your municipal water rights portfolio in light of the MWL and Cornelius decision. Click here to download a printable version of this article.

[i] Laws of 2003, 1st Spec. Sess., ch. 5. (2E2SHB 1338).

[ii] Cornelius v. Wash. Dept. of Ecology, Wash. State Univ., and Wash. Pol. Ctrl. Hearings Bd., Case No. 88317-3 (2015).

[iii] Theodoratus was the developer of a subdivision and private water system who contested an Ecology condition on approval of an extension to his water right permit that would measure his water right based on actual beneficial use rather than the capacity of his water system. The Court upheld the condition as the proper basis for certifying water rights.

Ecology Issues Rural Water Supply Strategy Report

Since the water availability crisis in the Skagit basin erupted after the Supreme Court’s decision in Swinomish v. Ecology, Ecology held several workgroup meetings with tribal representatives and other stakeholders to develop and assess potential solutions to the agency’s challenges with instream flow regulations and water availability. Ecology issued its report on this effort in November 2014, entitled “FINDING RURAL DOMESTIC WATER SOLUTIONS WHILE PROTECTING INSTREAM RESOURCES.”

The report summarizes stakeholder suggestions and comments on potential solutions involving existing statutory authority that range from establishing mitigation water banks, use of cisterns, broadening mitigation options, considering the full hydrologic cycle, and relying on better integration of land use planning. It also summarizes stakeholders discussions about options that would require new statutory authority, including clarification of Ecology’s use of OCPI, broadening mitigation options for impacts to instream flows and closed streams, giving domestic water use a statutory priority over other uses, and authorizing rules that would define impairment of instream flows and mitigation qualitatively rather than protecting flows numerically. The latter approach was suggested by the owner of this blog, and would focus more on habitat quality instead of the specific instream flow numbers. This approach could include a consultation process with Tribes, and local, state and federal fishery managers to determine impairment and mitigation, or could be tied to watershed planning to develop
standards basin-by-basin.

The report states that no consensus was reached among stakeholders about the best approach to protect instream flows while providing water for future rural domestic uses. Less support was voiced for modifying “OCPI” authority or creating a domestic water use priority, and more support was expressed for broadening mitigation options.

Ecology’s analysis is that all the options involving existing statutory authority have limitations that would challenge successful adoption of a new or amended instream flow rule in Washington State. The report opines that discussions about defining impairment in statute could lead to potential solutions, and encourages continued stakeholder discussions. Ecology staff pledges to support ongoing discussions about solutions, but the agency was not able to meet the administrative timelines for legislative proposals for the 2015 legislative session. Those interested in learning more or participating in stakeholder discussions should visit Ecology’s website at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/wrac/rwss-leg.html. The next stakeholder meeting is scheduled for January 5, 2014.

OWL v. KGH: PCHB Decision Opens Door to New Impairment and Mitigation Standards

     The Pollution Control Hearings Board has ruled that the Washington State Department of Ecology has “implied authority” to allow out-of-kind mitigation for impacts to instream flows.[1] The Board’s carefully crafted ruling regarding its own jurisdiction also acknowledges Ecology’s authority to amend numeric instream flow rules and subsequently approve new appropriations without minimum flow conditions.

     The Board’s summary judgment ruling in OWL v. KGH rejected arguments by two environmental groups that would have extended last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology[2] to water rights permitting decisions. Underlying the Board’s decision is its finding that minimum instream flows set by rule are “regulatory” and can be amended, whereas “base flows” are statutory and must be protected from impairment by new water right permits even if regulatory instream flows are made “inapplicable” to a class of water uses.

     While concluding that out-of-kind mitigation is not “per se unlawful,” the decision complicates what is expected to become one of Ecology’s principal fixes to water allocation regulatory problems in the post-Swinomish era. What precisely are “base flows” that must be protected from impairment and how do they differ from “minimum flows” set by regulation? How can one establish non-impairment of these base flows on a case-by-case basis, especially if future rule amendments bypass established minimum instream flows that the Supreme Court has described as water rights with priority dates that must be protected from impairment?

Click here for a complete copy of my article on the OWL v. KGH decision.

[1] Okanogan Wilderness League (OWL) and Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) v. State of Washington Department of Ecology and Kennewick General Hospital (KGH), PCHB No, 13-146, Order on Motions for Summary Judgment (July 31, 2014).

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