Olympia —A proposed rule to protect water sufficient to preserve fish and wildlife in the Walla Walla River Basin does not provide the protections necessary, according to comments filed by the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, WaterWatch of Oregon and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) with Washington’s Department of Ecology (Ecology).
Despite efforts in recent years to retain water instream to protect endangered bull trout and steelhead, Ecology has promulgated a rule that opens the basin to new water extractions that will lower stream levels. The rule lifts current restrictions and opens the basin for water extraction in April and May, two critical months for migrating fish.
Furthermore, the rule creates zones in the basin where unlimited amounts of new wells, capable of withdrawing up to 10,000 gallons per day, are allowed.
“This rule has the potential to undermine the limited water now flowing through the natural system by opening the basin to new withdrawals,” said Sue Gunn, Washington State Director of PEER. “We need to get real about the resource problem if we are going to realistically manage it.”
Zones described in the rule would allow wells to be developed in regions adjacent to the mainstream of the Walla Walla River and its tributaries. Wells will tap water derived from groundwater sources that are hydraulically connected with water flowing in the river. Hence pumping groundwater will only dry up the river faster. This will affect both stream flows and existing water users.
“Water is a public resource, and in a basin like Walla Walla there’s not enough to go around. Vigilance is required and this rule simply doesn’t provide that,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, a group dedicated to protecting Washington’s rivers and aquifers.
The rule allows for pumping from both deep and shallow regional aquifers, repealing an existing closure of the deeper, basalt aquifer.
PEER and CELP have both called for closure of the basin from April through November. The two groups have also recommended that no new water withdrawals be allowed unless they are mitigated for “bucket for bucket” prior to use.