Lake Tapps drinking water right is sent back for review

By Dennis Box

The Courier-Herald

The road to converting Lake Tapps to a consumptive water right ran into a snag July 1.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board sent the Lake Tapps consumptive water right permit granted to Puget Sound Energy (PSE) back to the Department of Ecology (DOE) for further review.

The DOE approved the PSE water right application June 2003.

"When we issued the water right the hydroelectric plant was operating," DOE spokesman Curt Hart said. "We need to look at the water right now that the hydroelectric plant has stopped operating. We don't need to go back to square one and this doesn't mean the project is dead."

PSE secured the water right initially as a means to help save the hydroelectric plant. After seven years of negotiations, PSE closed its hydroelectric plant Jan. 15 due to the high cost of obtaining a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license.

Once the hydroelectric plant was closed, the water right became a primary means to save Lake Tapps.

PSE intends to sell the water right to Cascade Water Alliance, a nonprofit water supply corporation. Cascade members are the cities of Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Redmond and Tukwila, the Skyway Water and Sewer District, the Covington Water District and Sammamish Plateau Water and Sewer District.

The Lake Tapps drinking water right is for 65 million gallons per day. Cascade members currently use 30 million gallons per day. Lake Tapps would eventually become the main water source for the alliance by 2040.

The consumptive water right was appealed to the hearing board by the Puyallup and Muckleshoot Indian tribes, the cities of Auburn, Pacific, Algona and Buckley and a private citizen, Robert Cook.

"We don't believe this stops the water right," PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said. "It just sends the permit back to DOE to do a little more homework. We could still see a decision later this year, I suppose, but it could delay it a bit."

The cities are appealing based on the access to a regional water source.

"The cities are talking about a water right that could affect the regional supply for decades," said Josh Whited, an attorney representing Auburn, Algona and Pacific. "The cities will need water in the future. This is a question of securing that this water source will be available and open to the greatest good of the region."

The tribes are basing their appeal on the effect the water right may have on fish habitat in the White and Puyallup rivers.

"The board did exactly the right thing," said Cynthia Lyman, an attorney representing the Puyallup Tribe. "Fish habitat is our priority. Increasing the fish and the redds is important. Everything must be re-evaluated now from the perspective of no hydroelectric power."

The remanding of the water rights has sent a ripple of worry through the Lake Tapps community about the future of the lake.

"I'm certainly disappointed the water right was remanded back to DOE," Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney said. "This may not be a positive occurrence, but I am confident we will prevail and get the water right through the courts and get a lasting solution for Lake Tapps."

Underlying the water rights issue are questions about maintaining water levels in the lake and the flow of fresh water going through it, carrying away effluents.

"The tribe wants to leave as much water in the lake as possible for homeowners while protecting the fish habitat," said Richard Du Bey, an attorney with Short Cressman and Burgess, which represents the Puyallup Tribe. "I am hopeful this will be a positive step that gives everyone time to catch their breath. We always take it for granted water will be available. This is for protection of our resources and this case could become an example of how communities can work together."

Dennis Box can be reached at

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