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Tapps water rights ruling due February

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

To drink or not to drink, that is the question surrounding Lake Tapps.

Puget Sound Energy has been trying to secure the drinking water rights for Lake Tapps from the Department of Ecology.

Curt Hart, spokesman for Ecology, stated a draft report should come out in January with the final decision in February.

According to Hart, the original goal of releasing a ruling by mid-December had to be postponed due to the complexity of the process since PSE closed the White River hydroelectric plant near Sumner.

"Lake levels and water quality are not easy issues," Hart said "There is a lot of scientific modeling going on. It's not just a quantity issue, but quality as well."

Ecology first granted the drinking water rights in June 2003, but the permits were appealed by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the cities of Auburn, Pacific, Algona, Buckley and a private citizen, Robert Cook.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled Ecology must reconsider the water rights permit after PSE closed their hydroelectric plant.

Lake Tapps, which is owned by PSE, had been used as a reservoir for the hydroelectric plant since 1911. PSE closed the plant Jan. 15 citing the high cost of obtaining an operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC raised the bar for PSE to obtain a license in 1997 when a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report stated the hydroelectric facility threatened Chinook salmon because it drew too much water from White River.

Since that time, there has been a concerted effort by PSE, politicians and homeowners to come up with a solution to save the lake from being drained.

PSE believes obtaining the drinking water rights is the solution. The energy supplier intends to sell the rights to Cascade Water Alliance, a non-profit water supply corporation. The Cascade members are the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond and Tukwila, the Skyway Water and Sewer District, the Covington Water District and the Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District.

"We are talking to all the parties involved," Hart said. "Buckley has dropped out of the appeal. We helped them with a water right (for South Prairie Creek) that predated the Department of Ecology."

Hart said Ecology is continuing to work with the two tribes and Auburn.

Auburn wanted to draw water from an aquifer under the city, but the water right was turned down by Ecology.

Ecology ruled the aquifer is connected to the White River, know as hydrologic continuity. According to Hart, the White River basin has been closed to new water rights permits since the early 1980's.

The reason PSE was able to gain the drinking water right for Lake Tapps in 2003, and may have them re-issued in February, is they offered a environmental mitigation plan.

"The caveat is you must show your project will have more environmental benefit than detriment," Hart said. "It is an overriding consideration of public interest."

PSE agreed to provide 500 acres of wildlife habitat, improve the flows in both the White and Puyallup Rivers and provide water outside the White River basin.

If PSE sells the rights, Cascade or any other buyer would be obligated to follow the agreement with Ecology.

Hart noted the Tribes have the senior water rights dating from the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty.

"With their water right the quantity has never been determined," Hart said. "For the tribes the fish habitat is the most important issue."

The following are some water rights facts and figures.

€ The Department of Ecology was created in 1970.

€ Ecology has oversight of 220,000 water right certificates, claims and permits across the state.

€ The surface water code was written in 1917.

€ The ground water code was written in 1945.

€ There are 62 water shed basins across the state.

€ There are 25 assistant-attorney generals assigned to Ecology and one-third work only on water resource issues.

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

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