Following the PCHB’s July 31, 2014 order (see my August 19, 2014 post), all parties to the case filed a second set of motions in an attempt to avoid a complicated and uncertain hearing on the merits. In an order dated December 12, 2014, the PCHB refused the bait offered by both parties. Its reasons highlight the difficulty in using existing regulatory authorities to resolve the virtual closure of the state’s water supply to new uses as a result of the instream flow regulations adopted by Ecology. For a discussion of those broader issues, see my article, “How Messed Up is Washington’s Water Allocation System after Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology,” published earlier on this blog.
The respondents, Kennewick General Hospital (KGH) and Department of Ecology (Ecology), entered into a conditional stipulation that they were willing to modify the Report of Examination (ROE) to include an additional condition that KGH’s water right permit be subject to and incorporate the regulatory minimum flows at WAC 173-563-040. The stipulation was conditioned on the PCHB’s determination that there were no remaining issues of fact and its dismissal of the appeal, which the respondents sought via a renewed summary judgment motion. By conditioning the permit on both the existing instream flow regulations and the agreed mitigation package in the ROE, the respondents believed that there was no need for a hearing on the PCHB’s remaining issue after its original summary judgment ruling:
“Does the permit provide adequate conditions that will retain base flows to preserve the instream flow values enunciated in RCW 90.54.020(3), and to protect those values from impairment, considering cumulative impacts to the flows of the Columbia River from additional appropriations?”
Given the complexity of the PCHB’s construction of this issue for hearing, it is understandable that the respondents would try to find a cleaner and more certain approach. The PCHB’s issue as framed not only incorporated a new and untested standard (impairment of instream flow “values”) which it described as “unclear and ambiguous,” it also raised a number of potential appellate issues. Does Ecology or the PCHB have authority to consider cumulative impacts to streamflow beyond their basic duty to prevent impairment of senior water rights? Did the legislature mean something different by requiring protection of “base flows” and authorizing (but not requiring) the setting of minimum instream flows by rule? By agreeing to have its permit subject to the applicable instream flow regulations, the respondents assumed that there could no longer be impairment of those minimum instream flows.
The appellants, Okanogan Wilderness League (OWL) and Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP), opposed the respondents’ motion and filed their own cross-motion seeking alternative remedies. First, OWL and CELP asserted that if Ecology and KGH reached a settlement it mooted the case, therefore the PCHB was obligated to vacate its July 31, 2014 summary judgment order and remand the matter for processing a new water right decision that would be subject to the right of a new appeal. Alternatively, appellants asserted that if the PCHB denies the respondents’ motion and retains the case, it should issue a final judgment under CR 54(b) on the legal question whether Ecology has authority to utilize out-of-kind mitigation to address impairment of water rights. A CR 54(b) order allows an “interlocutory appeal” of a discreet claim while the remaining issues stay pending before the PCHB.
The PCHB rejected KGH and Ecology’s motion, essentially declaring that the impairment standard for the alternative process of WAC 173-531A-060 (mitigation through consultation) is not the same as (and may be greater than) the adopted minimum instream flows under Chapter 173-563 WAC. It did not help respondents’ renewed summary judgment argument that Ecology officials had earlier testified that the minimum instream flows were “obsolete” and that the mitigation through consultation process was designed to protect higher or different standards resulting from listings under the Endangered Species Act.
The PCHB also rejected appellants’ cross-motion on the basis that an appeal of the out-of-kind mitigation issue would require further factual development and consideration of a record that explains the scope of impairment, the scope and use of out-of-kind mitigation, and the relation between them.
The bottom line is that multiple legal issues and an “unclear and ambiguous” impairment standard remain to be resolved as this first appeal involving the mitigation through consultation process heads toward a hearing before the PCHB. The mitigation flexibility offered to water right applicants and fisheries managers in WAC 173-531A-060 (part of the John Day/McNary Pool regulation) is clearly complicated by the question of Ecology’s statutory authority to allow out-of-kind mitigation and the uncertain standard of what constitutes impairment of an “instream value” and how that impairment can be mitigated. The legislature could help water right applicants, Ecology, fisheries managers, and environmental organizations by defining these standards and/or clarifying Ecology’s authority. The reasons for such legislative action were outlined in my earlier articles.