Department of Ecology (DOE) - Water Rights
During November and December I made and maintained contact with the
Department of Ecology. I had worked indirectly with the Washington DOE on watershed
planning processes in the past and strongly desired the opportunity to better
understand their role and relationship with statewide stakeholders. The Walla
Walla branch of the DOE focuses specifically on water issues in the basin and
is a perfect match for my personal and career interests. I have acquired a detailed
understanding of and passion for water law and policy in the western United
States and hope to continue in this field. I also intend to do my thesis on
watershed restoration approaches and explore the role that federal agencies
play in this process. An internship with the DOE perfectly complemented my interests
in water management and allowed me to apply my working knowledge of water resource
issues in WA.
I began working at the beginning of February with Bill Neve, the water master for the Walla Walla basin, and spent on average about 3-5 hours a week at the DOE office. Work in the office included organizing filed water rights, researching and becoming familiarized with Washington water policy, discussing basin issues and management procedures with Bill, helping individuals who come into the office, attending select DOE meetings and pursuing individual projects. Bill was a wonderful mentor. Every time I came into the office, he took time to answer my questions and discuss weekly happenings. He helped me to better understand water management in WA from an agency perspective. It is great to hear Bill's opinions on contentious issues; he is very knowledgeable and has a holistic perspective. It was especially nice to talk to Bill after a contentious watershed planning meeting. He helped me to understand the many sides of all the issues, especially on matters regarding instream flows.
Organizing water rights files was tedious at times, but very interesting. I became very familiar with water rights documentation and maps. Bill encouraged me to look through some of the files, decipher the water rights, skim water examination reports and read the various correspondences. Some files were very thin, containing only a few water rights certificates. Other folders were very thick, full of correspondences and reports. One such file had extensive documentation on a water rights violation and an ensuing lawsuit brought against an individual by the state. It was thrilling to read through the legal proceedings. I learned a lot through this process while at the same time compiling and organizing important documents for the office.
The most exciting part of the internship was definitely my individual project which was to place a riparian area into a conservation easement. Bill works in the office alone and only has time for so many projects and tasks, so he wanted me to help out with some things that he has not yet gotten around to. In 1998 the Department of Ecology purchased several hundred acres of riparian habitat and 8.23 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from a local landowner for instream needs on the Lower Walla Walla River. Their goal is to increase base flows in the river and improve aquatic habitat for fish and other species, namely those with ESA listings such as middle Columbia River steelhead, and Columbia Basin bull trout. The Lower Walla Walla River lies in a valley that has been dominated by agriculture for over 100 years. Farming related activities, including channel straightening, and recent local development has accelerated riverbank erosion which degrades water quality. The DOE recognizes the importance of these areas and seeks to preserve them through the purchase of water rights and conservation easements. The land is currently placed in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in which the landowner is paid to restore a vegetative buffer in the riparian area by planting native plants and prohibiting development or related disturbances. Once the CREP agreement is terminated, in April 2016, the land is automatically transferred to the DOE. The DOE has not drafted a formal document to outline the parameters of the conservation easement and does not even have the resources to manage the land once this happens. Bill wants to ensure that this land is properly managed when the CREP agreement ends. We discussed possible solutions and determined that it would be best to place the land in a permanent conservation easement with a land trust, more specifically the Blue Mountain Land Trust. This easement will ensure that the land is monitored and managed in perpetuity.
I began by reading the documents regarding the land acquisition and water rights purchase. I read through the file and familiarized myself with the property and the landowner. For a conservation easement it is necessary to identify the physical perimeters of the land, especially surrounding a river since the channel is subject to change course. I thought it would be beneficial to see the perimeters established in the CREP agreement so I called the County Conservation District to obtain the CREP contracts and maps. They directed me to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and requested that I receive permission from the landowner. I worked with the FSA to identify what information I needed and spent time reviewing the contractual agreements. In order to obtain actual GIS points, delineating the property lines, I had to contact the contracting company who had helped with the CREP installments. They brought me the CD and helped me open and understand the maps. At this point I still was not entirely sure what a conservation easement actually entailed so I setup a meeting with Beth Thiel of the Blue Mountain Land Trust (BMLT). We discussed the process of putting land into an easement and the possibility of transferring this specific tract of riparian habitat to BMLT. Beth was excited by the prospect and asked that I compile a folder with maps of the property, a copy of the land purchase agreement, and a list of the landowner's intentions. She plans to present these documents to the board of directors at the next meeting.
I contacted the landowner and setup a meeting to review the easement process and to discuss the possibility of putting the land into trust with the BMLT. The meeting went very well; the landowner was very receptive and looked forward to working with the BMLT. We walked the property and I took some photographs of the riparian area to include in the folder for the BMLT. I showed the landowner some outlines and drafts of easement agreements and asked about his intentions for his land. He wants to maintain the health of the riparian area and ensure that the CREP installment (native plants) continues to grow and stabilize the bank. I compiled all of this information and brought it to Beth. We will not hear from BMLT about their decision for another week or so. If the easement does transfer to BMLT they require a stewardship fee of $5,000 - $10,000 dollars (mainly to legally protect the terms of the easement should it be challenged in the future). I looked into possible funding sources such as the Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB) and may work on writing a grant within the next year. Bill also says that the DOE may have some extra funds in future years to allocate to the management of easement. I enjoyed having an individual project to work on. It was great to develop a strategy, make contacts and work both independently and in collaboration with different individuals. I hope to continue working on this project during next school year. I would like to see the process completed and I would love to be involved with constructing an actual easement agreement.
I had hoped to go out in the field with Bill to do diversion examinations and to help regulate. This year the basin is experiencing a devastating drought which means that Bill has to regulate against junior water rights holders who usually receive all of their water rights. It is going to be a difficult season for farmers, municipal users, and the agencies that have to regulate them. I did not work enough hours during the week to go into the field with Bill, but I am hoping to do so in late May or early June.
In addition to my work in the office, I also attended watershed planning meetings. I attended the Walla Walla Watershed Basin Council (WWWBC) meetings in Milton-Freewater. These meetings focus mainly on restoration projects and improvement efforts in the Walla Walla watershed and the procuring of funds to continue those efforts. I joined the email list and am in contact with several community members. One man who I met at the last meeting, Bob Chicken, needs some help with stream restoration. I told him that I could more likely than not get him some hard-working hands. It is fascinating to see who shows up at these meetings and to identify their various stakes in the watershed. I also attended meetings with the Walla Walla Watershed Planning Unit (WWWPU). They have compiled a management plan that will direct individuals and agencies in future water management practices. One component of this plan is to recommend instream flows for critical reaches in the basin. The DOE has had many meetings regarding this issue since it has been especially contentious in the planning unit. The state is recommending instream flows, based on scientific flow studies, that are much higher than the recommendations of the planning unit. I took notes at all of the meetings and discussed confusing points or important decisions with Bill to gain an agency perspective.
This internship provided me with so much useful information and practical experiences. Bill is a great resource and welcomed me as a DOE "team member" from the very beginning. He sought to include me in DOE meetings and was always more than willing to discuss basin-wide issues. It was also gratifying to have an individual project that I could work on independently. Future interns should expect to spend the majority of their time working independently on projects since Bill really does not have the time or the resources to spend extensive amounts of time working directly with the intern – he is always very busy. He did help me get started and was always available if I had questions, but he could not guide me. For this reason I would recommend this internship to a self-directed individual. I also suggest that the intern familiarize him/herself with basin-wide issues by attending watershed meetings and making contacts within the community (something I was fortunate to have already done prior to my internship). I think that it is helpful, if not necessary, that you have some background understanding of western water policy or more specifically, Washington water policy. This could include knowledge of the doctrine of prior appropriation, instream flows, trust water rights, riparian ecology, agency involvement, and Washington Administrative Codes (WACs) which govern water decisions in the state (such as the Watershed Planning Act of 1998). It is valuable to understand statutes as well as the overabundance of acronyms. The internship was much more rewarding with a basic understanding of water issues, especially local water issues.
This internship exceeded my expectations. I wanted to gain insight into water issues from an agency perspective, further familiarize myself with water rights and water policy, work collaboratively with local landowners and affect some change within the basin. I made valuable local contacts, enhanced my understanding and involvement in basin-wide issues and helped to further preserve a vital tract of riparian habitat. I will stay for the month of May and into the beginning of June as a paid intern at the DOE and hope to return next school year.
Department of Ecology