Heating Up: Preparing for a drought.

What Spokane residents should know about the upcoming drought, water conservation, and enforcing water rights.

Washington State Department of Ecology issued a drought advisory on May 24th.

A quick survey of the news reveals alarming statistics of an impending drought. In fact, most of the Western US (37% of the nation) and millions of residents are currently suffering from a drought. This year, most of Western Washington has been abnormally dry, and Eastern Washington has been severely dry.

The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), determined that 2021 has been the 6th driest year Spokane has seen over the past 127 years. On the one hand, the overall water supply in Spokane County is below normal. On the other hand, precipitation levels are 0-50% of normal levels. In May, the Office of the Washington State Climatologist recorded that Spokane received only 13% of its normal precipitation.

Unfortunately, the chance of precipitation increasing in coming months is low. In addition, Spokane residents’ water use more than triples during the summer months. Last but not least, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) has warned that the drought will continue without improvement over the next three months. These stats are alarming for residents, property owners, and agricultural workers.

What does this mean for Spokane Residents?

Droughts reduce urban water supplies, agricultural productivity and may increase heat related deaths.

A moderate to severe drought increases the likelihood of fires, dust storms, and low river flows. A severe drought means that wheat and corn growth is stunted, grasses are brown and the number of wildfires increase. For these reasons, local fire departments have imposed recreational burn bans, and authorities encourage water conservation efforts.
Additionally, the hot, dry conditions of the coming summer months will only compound the current drought impacts.

What can we do to help minimize overall losses?

“An ounce of prevention” could reduce your water bill, conserve urban water supplies, and prepare for the impending impacts of this summer’s drought.

In response to overall water consumption, especially during a drought, authorities encourage water conservation efforts. According to the Spokane Aquifer Joint Board, water conservation is a way to prevent wasteful use of water resources by using water efficiently.

There are multiple resources and possible incentives available for Spokane residents to make a difference.

The Spokane Aquifer Joint Board shares drought-conscious water use tips on their website. For example, they offer a Water Use Calculator to identify specific areas for improving overall household water efficiency.

Not only does saving water decrease your water bill, but will also save you money on your next utility bill. Specifically, the City of Spokane is hosting several “Water Wise Contests” for select residential customers to earn credit towards water bill. The City also offers rebates for residents who install select WaterSense certified products.

For more about water conservation strategies, the City offers a number of resources online.

Practical tips to do your part:

Indoor:

  • Take shorter showers. One 5-minute shower uses 10-25 gallons while a full tub uses 70 gallons. Avoiding baths and spending 2 minutes less per shower could save 46,000 gallons per year.
  • Use a low flow shower head to reduce flow without losing pressure (may qualify for a rebate)
  • Run only full loads of dishes and laundry. Even a partially full dishwasher load uses less water than hand washing!

Outdoor:

  • Consider efficient irrigation and landscape standards
  • Water between 7 PM and 7 AM, when water evaporation rates are lowest
  • Maintain higher lawn height to protect roots from heat stress
  • Adopt stormwater management strategies
  • Plant drought tolerant plants to maintain your curb appeal and save on your water bill in a water-conscious way
  • Set up a rain barrel so that if it does rain that water can be reused
  • Use sensors to monitor the moisture content in the soil. Sensors are typically automatic with sprinkler systems, or may be installed manually

What if I have my own water source on or near my property?

Short answer is that having your own water source on or near your property does not necessarily mean you have the legal right to use it. In fact, accessing that water supply can lead to complex legal questions.

Under Washington water law, the State of Washington owns all water within its boundaries. The majority of property owners contract with a utility company for their water supply. Other property owners who may have additional surface water on their land, or have dug a well, may assume that they have the right to use it. Importantly, access to water does not necessarily grant the legal right to appropriate that water.

What are water rights?

Water rights in Washington date back to 1917, when the Western Water Law awarded surface water rights to those who put a water source to a beneficial, continuous use. RCW 90.14.010. Now, a water right is perfected when it meets all the conditions of the permit and the Department of Ecology issues a certificate. Once a water right is established, it must be properly maintained through beneficial use (i.e., the use identified in the water right certificate as the approved use of water appropriated under the certificate). A water right is perpetual, unless it is not used for a certain period or used incorrectly.

Contrary to popular belief, owning or possessing land does not grant the legal right to appropriate water within that parcel. Sometimes a water right granted to one property owner authorizes withdrawal of water from land that the water right holder does not own. In these cases, it may be necessary to establish easements to ensure the water right holder has access to the water supply. Often times, multiple owners are granted rights to the same water source. In this instance it may be necessary to establish a private well maintenance agreement to govern the use of the water.

Washington also has an exempt well statute which may apply to your particular situation. However, it is best to check with legal counsel who are familiar with water rights, especially if you are building where there is no established water purveyor.

How do I enforce my water rights?

The Department of Ecology manages the State’s water supplies. The Department of Ecology maintains an online database of current and historical water rights. The validity of a claim can only be confirmed through administrative processes established by the Department of Ecology, with the possibility to appeal adverse decisions through judicial processes. In addition, claims may also be brought when a party destroys lateral or subjacent support, causes an unlawful incursion of diffused surface water, causes a nuisance, or causes damage to a water source.

If a third party, or multiple parties, is refusing to honor your water rights, is claiming water rights over your land, or claiming a right to the same water source, it may be time to resolve it in or out of court. Disputes surrounding water rights can cause problems down the road, especially if you are considering developing, selling, or living on your land. Disputed water rights may even impede attempts at implementing water conservation efforts.

If you aren’t sure about the status of your water rights, are facing a water rights dispute, or would like to obtain water rights for your property, consider contacting our attorneys at Wolff, Hislop & Crockett.

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