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.

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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.

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).

How Messed Up is Washington’s Water Allocation System After Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology?

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology is a major water rights decision by the Washington Supreme Court that is impacting watershed planning, water rights permitting and development in rural areas.  I have been practicing water rights law in Washington State since 1990.  I have witnessed how the state’s water allocation policy has been misapplied by setting minimum instream flows before allocating water for other uses according to the maximum net benefits policy, and by falsely assuming that ground water would remain available for future municipal and domestic uses.  The Swinomish decision demonstrates that the state’s implementation of legislative water allocation policy is broken and needs to be fixed.  Please read my article,How Messed Up is Washington’s Water Allocation System After Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. Ecology? How False Assumptions and Failure to Balance Water Priorities Led to a Surprise Closure of the State’s Groundwater, Over-Reliance on OCPI and the Need for Legislative Reform.”  The article is also posted on my website, www.porslaw.com.

Water rights stakeholders, state and local officials, attorneys, consultants and the public are invited to comment on the Swinomish decision, my article, new developments, and potential legislative fixes.  Use the reply window below or click on “comment” to post your comments, or send me an email to tompors@comcast.net.  If you follow this blog, you will be notified when new developments and comments are posted.

I will periodically post new developments relating to the Swinomish case and pose questions for followers of this blog.  Thank you for contributing to a discussion whose goal is to help shape water allocation policy in the state of Washington.