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Snohomish isn’t taking Pilchuck River water, but it’s there if needed

SNOHOMISH — The Pilchuck River is no longer the source of water for some city residents, but if the city needs those rights in the future, they are protected in a trust agreement through the state Department of Ecology.
“Think of it as a bank account where you might put money into a trust account and it is safe, a lock-box, if you will,” said attorney Adam Gravley of Van Ness Feldman LLP in a recent City Council meeting.
The agreement devised for the city provides flexibility in how to access rights again, protecting the city from the “use it or lose it” personality of water laws, now that the city is leaving the resource unused.
The city’s water supplies are through the city of Everett, said Steve Schuller, the city’s administrator and utilities manager.
Everett gets its water from Spada Lake, a resource that provides water to 65,000 people, which includes 75 percent of the businesses and residents in the county, its website says. Spada Lake is located east of Sultan.
Banking protects the city from losing water rights after five years without use. A state law passed in the 1990s says water banking can make water supplies available during times of drought to improve streamflows and preserve in-stream values during critical periods that contribute to the health of fish populations. It also reduces the cost of obtaining water, if emergency needs occur in the future, the law states.
About two-thirds of Snohomish County was deemed “abnormally dry” as is 62 percent of the state of Washington as a whole. That measurement is as of Jan. 7, and is taken every Tuesday and posted on drought.gov.
The preservation of water rights is a proactive move in case of scarcity.
“You don’t know what climate change will do” to water resources, said Karen Guzak, who served as mayor for much of the water-supply process, and recently retired from 12 years of city service as a councilmember.
The agreement with Ecology is a long-term cooperative framework to secure the city’s water rights for in-stream flows for 50 years. It places in trust the city’s max historic volume of 2,113 acre-feet, Gravley explained. An acre-foot is the unit used to measure water.
“Imagine an acre of land where the water is a foot deep,” he said. That is approximately 1 million gallons. The city’s water right is protecting more than 5 cubic feet per second of flow, Gravley said.
The city has been devising a plan to deal with the aging of their water treatment system and 14 miles of pipeline from the treatment plant since 2009, when Schuller first presented a report to the council. The replacement option can be dusted off in the future, if needed.
A resolution passed in the summer of 2016 directed city staff to pursue three key points: To move residents to the Everett water supply; decommission the city’s water treatment system on the Pilchuck River; and preserve and protect the historical water right, which is based on average use.
Protection of water rights required negotiating a water banking agreement with Ecology, Gravley said.
Without the change, the city would have been vulnerable to loss of water rights.
The change to Everett water also led to a zero percent increase in water rates through 2022.
The trust marks the end of a long water-planning era. The state, tribes, local agencies, fisherman and environmental groups were “all very excited that the Pilchuck River now has additional flows since we stopped operation of the water treatment plant on the upper Pilchuck,” Schuller said. “Low flow in the summer on the lower Pilchuck was a well-known concern.”
The trust agreement is “a win-win for people and fish,” Gravley said.

  

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