Skagit River basin: developing solutions

We are actively pursuing long-term water supply solutions for property owners in the Skagit River basin affected by the adoption of Chapter 173-503 WAC and the 2013 Washington State Supreme Court ruling.

Read more about the rule and court decision:

Some of the long-term supply solutions being explored are:

  • Acquiring senior water rights to use for mitigation (i.e., ending a long-standing withdrawal from the river to offset the impacts of new withdrawals).
  • Storing (storing water when it is plentiful to be used when water is scarce).
  • Extending public water supply service areas.
  • Recharging shallow aquifer: releasing water to replenish groundwater supplies.

Water supply options for new uses

There are several ways to potentially get water for new legal water use in the Skagit River basin:

  • Connect to a public water supply.
  • Store water in a cistern. You can collect and store rainwater or, depending on your location, you may be able to have water delivered. For more information, consult with:
    • Skagit County Planning and Development Services at 360-416-1320
    • Snohomish County Planning and Development Services at 425-388-3311
  • Drill a well in a location that has no impact on the river.
    • A number of residences have already been approved. Contact Skagit County Planning and Development Services at 360-416-1320 for more information.
    • We recently informed the county about a water availability zone near Bayview where groundwater drains to saltwater and withdrawals have no effect on the river. See the water availability zone map.
  • Use a well and mitigate (offset) the impact on instream flows by proposing your own mitigation plan to us.
    • We have several approved mitigation programs that benefit properties in the Skagit Basin (see Mitigation Programs).

Developing solutions

Mitigation programs

We are working with local partners to develop and administer water banks and regional mitigation options for the basin.
 
Skagit River Basin Mitigation Program 
 
In 2019, we agreed to purchase water from Seattle City Light in order to provide water for Skagit well owners and begin mitigation efforts in the Skagit River basin. The purchase was finalized in early 2020 and removes legal uncertainty for many landowners in Skagit and Snohomish counties affected by a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling.
 
The program provides a legal right to water for approximately 340 affected landowners who did not have a legal water source for nearly seven years. It also provides water for limited new domestic uses in Skagit County. We will work directly with affected landowners to provide documentation that records their legal water source and partner with Skagit County to provide documentation needed for county building permits. 

Big Lake Water Association domestic water mitigation program

A new program is providing a legal right to water for nearly 100 homes north of Big Lake along Nookachamps Creek, a tributary of the Skagit River. We are jointly operating the program — which launched on Dec. 3, 2018 — with Skagit County. We created the program by purchasing water rights from a local utility. This mitigation program repurposes those water rights for household use along Nookachamps Creek between the Skagit River and Big Lake.

Priority has been given to 18 existing homes that do not have a legal source of water following the 2013 state Supreme Court ruling. The rest of the water will be available for new uses on a first-come, first-served basis.

To stay updated about these projects, please sign up for our Skagit Basin Water Solutions email list.

Storage

In response to Engrossed Senate Bill 6589, the governor directed us to study the possibility of storing water to provide non-interruptible water supplies to permit-exempt well users in the Skagit River basin. We partnered with Washington State University’s Water Research Center to develop the feasibility study. We also worked with Washington Department of Health, Skagit County, tribes, and non-municipally owned public water systems in Skagit County on this study.

Expanding public water supply

We commissioned RH2 Engineering to complete two in-depth studies of existing municipal water systems in the lower Skagit River tributaries to determine if those systems could provide water for new uses.

The first study evaluated nine public water systems in the region and identified five potential projects that would provide water in the Carpenter-Fisher and Nookachamps subbasins. The projects identified include:

  • Direct water service expansion in the upper reaches of the Nookachamps and Carpenter-Fisher subbasins.
  • Indirect water service by piping municipal supplies into the upper reaches of Fisher, Carpenter, and Nookachamps creeks, offsetting the use of wells downstream.

Preliminary cost estimates for these projects range from $700,000 to $12 million. The study found that it is least expensive to use public water supply as mitigation (indirect water service). Mitigation options ranged between about $700,000 to $4 million. Direct service options started at about $6 million. If carried out, these options would provide relief for some, but not all, property owners in these subbasins. The biggest expense is the length of the water main needed.

The second study assessed the availability of municipal water rights upstream of Sedro-Woolley. The study identified:

  • Five water systems that may be capable of expanding their service, although substantial infrastructure upgrades may be needed.
  • Fifteen smaller water systems could serve an additional 633 connections within their existing service areas.

Cost is the major consideration for water service expansion. A rough estimate puts possible waterline extensions in the tens of millions of dollars. Funding for these projects is not known. Many areas where direct water service expansion would be needed do not have a lot of residents. This may not be a cost-effective option.

Shallow aquifer recharge

We have considered shallow aquifer recharge (SAR) projects to provide water for mitigation in the Skagit River basin. Suitable sites are a possibility in portions of the lower Skagit. The upper Skagit watershed is generally dominated by bedrock, limiting the likelihood of suitable sites.

Many elements need to come together for SAR to be a viable option. These include:

  • Proper geology.
  • Land available for lease or purchase.
  • Reliable and consistent water availability. In areas where SAR would depend on high-flow events or stormwater runoff for recharge, water supply could vary considerably seasonally and from year-to-year.
  • Reliable operation and maintenance facility that could run indefinitely.

Skagit River Basin Streamflow Enhancement/Groundwater Mitigation Program

In 2014, the Upper Skagit Tribe proposed a wetland recharge SAR project in the Fisher Creek subbasin. A technical study showed that not enough water could be captured during dry years to meet the needs of property owners. Potential sites were also not available for purchase and there was little community support. The project proponents decided not to pursue the project.