Sarah Schoen
Internship Report

The Washington Water Trust
CommEn Space

For my internship I worked with the Washington Water Trust and CommEn Space on a project to learn more about water use in the Walla Walla basin, and eventually create a technical map of water rights and water use in the area. With this information, the Washington Water trust hopes to eventually restore many streams and tributaries in Walla Walla, thus restore salmon and trout to the waters.

The Washington Water Trust is an organization that works to restore rivers and streams in Washington by buying existing water rights from others. This is beneficial for water quality, fisheries, and recreation. The Washington Water Trust works particularly on fish recovery to small streams and tributaries by adding replacement water to restore degraded habitat. The natural cycle of eastern Washington involves long wet winters, and then dry summers. This coupled with irrigation in the summer by ranchers and farmers adds to the dry rivers in the summer in the Walla Walla WRIA (Water Resource Inventory Area 32). Water rights have historically been over allocated as well, and in-stream flow is not insured to be high enough to support fish. CommEn Space is an organization established in 1998 to support environmental organizations that want to incorporate GIS, maps, or other forms of analysis in their conservation work.

My main objective was to help Chris Davis at CommEn Space with the initial researching required to conduct a technical assessment of WRIA 32. The technical assessment will provide a framework to better understand the implications of water use in the area, and ultimately how it will affect the fish. It was also personally objective to learn about the process involved with water management, water use mapping, and help eventually return salmon and trout to eastern Washington’s rivers.

Both my associate Chris Davis at CommEn Space and I were new to the legal system involved with water rights at the start of the internship. Chris gave me a general idea of the data that I should go about finding; the number the water rights holders, the location of those rights, and the volumes of the right, including any time restrictions associated with them. He then wanted to compare those to known total rates/volumes of the rivers, and the species data that he had already compiled. As I began researching Chris’s original guiding questions, I realized that there was much more to water law than either Chris or I had expected. Chris advised me to start my researching with the Washington Department of Ecology, and then see where I need to go from there. The Department of Ecology had an overwhelming amount of information about general water use. It was interesting for me and helped me understand the big picture better, but did not have a lot of the technical information that I was looking for. I looked at various other sites on the internet to try to answer more of these questions, but without a lot of background knowledge it was hard to tell what was important and what was not. Communicating with my associates was fairly limited as both organizations are based out of Seattle. We had a few telephone conversations, but most of our communicating had to be over e-mail. This made for long breaks between questions being answered, and I did not know exactly what Chris was looking for in terms of data collecting. I did find a very helpful supplementary report from a link on the Department of Ecology website that had the number of water rights holders and a map of their locations. I found that there are currently 1316 ground water rights holders, and 1735 surface rights holders.

While volunteering at an environmental education workshop for kids run by Bob Chicken, I ran into a man who was working on a similar project for analyzing water use on the Oregon side of the watershed. The man, Bob Bower, was another great information source. He introduced me to several other people who helped put the project in perspective. The employees at the Walla Walla office of the Washington Department of Ecology were able to assist me in answering many questions, and narrowing down my goals for the project.

Victoria Leuba and her coworker Chad Fisher at the WDOE were extremely helpful. They let me know that most of the information from their website was outdated, and much more complicated than Chris or I realized. They gave me a booklet with the basics of Washington State Water law, and several other packets of water rights questions and answers. They also contributed a significant amount of their time helping me answer Chris’s questions. I learned that the number of water rights holders is an ambiguous number, because there are actual state issued rights holders, permit holders for people who have applied to use the water but have not been issued a right yet, and then claim holders. The claim holders are people who claim that they were using this water before the state developed a centralized system for giving out water rights back in 1917. There are around a quarter of a million document holders (permits/rights/claims), and one of the workers at the WDOE made a guess that around two thirds of those documents are claims. A lot of those claims have not even been reviewed, and some of the document holders are not using their water. The water rights have historically been over allocated, yet all of the rights holders must not be using their entire allotment because the streams are not running dry in the summer. When it comes right down to it, much of the water used in WRIA 32 goes unmonitored. Because of the large number of paper documents, not all of them have been completely reviewed. Most of the state issued permits and rights are in a database, and some of the claims are in it, but not all. In that same database are the location of the rights, and the volumes. That information is also not complete however, and some of the claims entered into the database just have the name of the claim holder, or another piece of information, but not all of it. The location of the rights is given sometimes more specifically than others, sometimes in terms of township, sometimes in quarter sections, etc. There is also a different volume of water allotted for different seasons, winter, summer, and fall. These were not the simple answers that I had expected. I also learned that the most recent map of the Walla Walla WRIA is from about 80 years ago. Although the task of mapping out water use sounds daunting, it has been done by another WRIA section. That section, WRIA 1 has a website charting the step-by-step process of mapping that should be interesting for Chris. After talking to Chris about the complexity of our task, he decided that CommEn Space and the Washington Water Trust are most interested in the basic information. I am working to send Chris the database from the WDOE now, which should provide most of the information that he needs. Chris and I were not able to start mapping WRIA 32, but I was successful in coming up with the groundwork for Chris’s project, and laying out a game plan for further development.

I felt like my internship was overall a success. The main difficulty was being in Walla Walla while I was working with people in Seattle. We made a few long distance phone calls, but most of our communication was through e-mail. I felt like this slowed down the internship, and made it harder to be clear on what exactly Chris and Yolanka wanted. With both Chris and Yolanka in busy positions, I got frustrated when the internship was also slow getting started. Once we had developed an initial game plan however, I felt like it really got going. I am happy with what I discovered through my internship, and really enjoyed working with so many nice and knowledgeable people.

This was an interesting internship because I was working on a large scale for something I think is really important, fish recovery, and on a smaller scale to create a map of the waters that hasn’t been redone in 80 years. It was a very independent internship, as the whole process was a learning experience for both me, and my supervisor. I learned a lot about water law, and how intricate and complex it is. The end product from CommEn Space, a GIS map of WRIA 32, is far from finished. The goal of returning water to the small streams and tributaries, thus salmon, is also far off for The Washington Water Trust. Although I was not able to achieve a great end product from my internship, I feel like it was very valuable. I learned quite a bit, and am considering continuing this internship in the fall. I definitely recommend this internship to someone who is willing to search around in the unknown, and potentially finish a brand new, very useful tool for water use assessment and monitoring.