Lake Tapps water right pushed forward

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

Converting Lake Tapps into a drinking water reservoir for the region continues to be a long and winding road.

The final decision on granting the water right rests with the Department of Ecology.

Ecology officials thought the decision would be ready in December, then in February, but have continued to extend the date as negotiations continue between Puget Sound Energy, owner of the Lake Tapps, Cascade Water Alliance, a water purveyor, and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

"We (Ecology) want to see that if we give a water right that it is put to beneficial use," said Curt Hart, a spokesman for Ecology. "We have to be satisfied the water will not sit on the shelf somewhere. The ball is in PSE's court. A water right is a public resource and the department manages water on behalf of the citizens."

According to Hart, state law has four criteria for a consumptive water right. The water must be available, it must be in the public interest, it can't impair a senior water right and it must be put to beneficial use.

The surface water code was written in 1917.

"When the state law was written the Legislature did not want people speculating in water rights," Hart said. "It is 'use it or lose it.' But a municipal water right is not restricted. The new state law says a large municipality or water purveyor must provide a schedule showing how they would grow into the water right."

A drinking water right was granted to Puget Sound Energy in June 2003. The Puyallup Tribe, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, and the cities of Auburn, Pacific, Algona and Buckley, along with a private citizen, Robert Cook, appealed the water right.

The appeal was upheld by the Pollution Control Hearings Board and remanded back to Ecology to reconsider the decision in light of PSE closing the White River hydroelectric plant.

Since the remand, Buckley has dropped out of the negotiations after Ecology helped them secure a water right for South Prairie Creek.

PSE operated the White River hydroelectric power plant for nearly 100 years using Lake Tapps as a reservoir.

PSE closed the plant due to the cost of obtaining an operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the plant threatened Chinook salmon runs in the White River, the company determined the price tag for a license would be too high.

PSE has been in negotiations with Cascade Water Alliance and the Puyallup Tribe trying to work out an agreement on the water rights.

"We are still hopeful we can get a water right to move forward in the next couple of months," PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said. "A water right is difficult to obtain, but it's critical with growing the population in this area. Our belief is we have demonstrated so may benefits to be gained, not just in a water supply, but keeping Lake Tapps for recreation and storage."

PSE's negotiation with the Puyallup Tribe is critical if another appeal and round of court battles is to be avoided. The tribe holds the senior water right, however the amount of water allotted has never been determined.

"We are trying to come to an agreement without adjudicating these issues," said Richard Du Bey, an attorney representing the tribe. "This is a very difficult, archaic area (of law)."

If PSE is granted the water right, the energy company plans to sell the right and possibly Lake Tapps to Cascade Water Alliance.

"No one at Ecology is trying to keep this from happening," Hart said. "We want it to be legal and follow the letter of the law. This is a large and very important water right and all parties are diligently working on this."

Dennis Box can be reached at

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