Water rights and access to water is an ongoing issue for city officials
Sumner’s search for water to accommodate future needs continued at a study session last week.
City Council members heard from Thomas Pors, their water rights attorney who has years of experience in the subject. Pors described the procedure to the council and mentioned more than once council should prepare for a lengthy process.
“I’ve had applications that have taken more than 10 years from start to finish,” Pors said.
Specific potential sources of water were mentioned a few times, but most of the conversation focused on the legal process leading up to gaining water rights and extracting the water.
Sumner’s water supply options are to develop a new source of its own or to buy water from someone. Purchasing water from an outside source is a costly endeavor, sometimes requiring millions of dollars up front and council stated a preference to finding the city’s own water source.
The city recently drilled a well which came up dry and it’s likely another well will be installed in the future. Doan said there are areas of water where the city has physical access, but no legal right, but if the city can convert that source into a municipal right, the water could be used.
One method to acquire water is through eminent domain. This process may involve a court case to determine whether the city has the right to claim the water.
Doan stated the most important decisions the court would make regarding eminent domain is whether there is a “public necessity” and whether a “fair price” is offered for the use.
One potential outside water source, Lake Tapps, is still undergoing a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review. The Cascade Water Alliance owns the lake and once the review is complete and the right to use the water is obtained, water could be used from the lake.
In a packet provided to council, the steps required for water rights acquisition were laid out and specific case law was included so council could be aware of potential obstacles to the process.
Pors and Sumner Public Works Director Bill Pugh said the city must adhere to the Department of Ecology’s guidelines, emphasized the importance of anticipating how and why an application could be delayed and planning ahead to avoid the problem.
An appeal process could cause a lengthy delay of the application process and cost millions of dollars, Pors said.
The council heard ways the application may be denied.
For example, minimum water flows are established for sources such as the Puyallup River, so any work done to obtain water must not produce a lower flow. Doan said the minimum flow requirement refers to the level of water in a river during the summer, when the available surface water to feed an aquifer is less plentiful due to a lack of rainfall.
Hydraulic continuity is a term used to describe how easily water flows between ground water and surface water. The surface water is water above ground, which could either feed into an aquifer, which stores the water, or could flow into streams, rivers, and to the ocean. The Department of Ecology could deny an application if the hydraulic continuity would be negatively affected.
Another reason an application may be denied is if there is a negative impact to the surrounding environment. Obtaining water must not impact protected wildlife, fish or the scenic quality of an area under regulation.
The Department of Ecology evaluates this and other impacts of the water application and makes a decision on whether an application for water rights is approved.
Doan said the city’s application could also be challenged by an organization other than the Department of Ecology.
City council and staff will continue the process once the new year begins.
Reach Chaz Holmes at email@example.com or 360-802-8208.