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Task force wrestles with water rights

By Dennis Box-The Courier-Herald

Converting Lake Tapps to a drinking water reservoir appears to be inching forward, but roadblocks and serious potholes are still ahead.

The Lake Tapps Task Force met Dec. 4 at the Public Safety Building to discuss and consider the final comments to be submitted concerning the Draft Report of Examination (DROE), or drinking water rights, that the Department of Ecology has proposed for the lake.

The group gave the nod for County Councilman Shawn Bunney, who is the task force chairman, and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg to send a letter to the Department of Ecology asking for three changes in the water rights' document.

Leon Stucki, a member of the Lake Tapps Community Council, said the community is “perfectly happy to go along with the DROE as long as we can get those three changes.”

The first point the task force recommended was to eliminate the minimum in-stream flow requirement measured at the lower Puyallup River.

The DROE document stated when the Puyallup River's in-stream flows are below the minimum, the diversion of water from the White River “shall be reduced to the extent necessary to comply with the MIF (minimum in stream flows).”

The task force members contended the reason for fluctuations in the in-stream flow levels in the lower Puyallup should not be solely blamed on the White River or Lake Tapps. The two rivers join near Sumner and flow into Commencement Bay.

The second issue was to measure the in-stream flow of the White River a short distance below the fish trap and diversion dam near Buckley. About 20 to 30 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water is diverted into the fish trap at the diversion dam. The river's in-stream flows are measured at the dam, but the diverted water from the fish trap re-enters near the point where Boise Creek joins the White.

The task force is asking Ecology to measure the river after the diverted water has returned to the river.

The third request from the group to Ecology is for a 5 percent (plus or minus) in-stream flow tolerance in the river.

Debby Hyde, the special project coordinator with the county executive's office, said the gauges and technology used to measure water flow is “not a perfect science” due to the changing nature of the river.

The task force is asking for some wiggle room prior to enforcement of the minimum flow.

A second letter written by Bunney and Ladenburg and submitted to Ecology, stated they were disappointed an agreement could not be worked out that included the Puyallup Tribe, Lake Tapps homeowners, PSE and Cascade, but “the ROE has brought us closer to agreement and we have a better understanding of each other's priorities.”

One of the main issues remaining is the flows the Puyallup Tribe stated will be necessary in July. The tribe sent an “Adaptive Management Flow Proposal” to Ecology that calls for 800 cfs in July and 500-650 cfs in August.

The task force believes flows of 800 cfs in July could cause the lake to drop below recreational levels and be lost for the rest of the season.

“There is a real possibility of taking hits in July we couldn't recover from,” Bunney said at the meeting. “As a county councilman from this area this is not acceptable.”

Bunney said this and other issues will be difficult negotiating points, but in terms of saving the lake, “these are not the hardest issues we've ever overcome.”

Hyde noted the task force and tribe have agreed on 󈫻 months of flows and that's really important. July is the only thing left.”

Tom Loranger, the program manager at Ecology said the department will go through all the comments and requests from interested parties before issuing a final water rights draft.

“We will move forward with a decision on the ROE,” Loranger said. “There is a lot of competition for water in July and August.”

Loranger said the flows requested by the Puyallup Tribe in August are “more than what we asked for.”

Bunney, who has been a leading member of the task force for more than eight years, said the work of the task force was “more than just a job; it's a lifetime endeavor.”

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com.

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