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Thinning the water rights logjam

The Washington State Department of Ecology spent the past couple of years hacking away at the backlog of applications for water rights changes.

By devoting more employees to processing applications, the DOE has cut its backlog by 28 percent to a current backlog of approximately 1,400 applications statewide.

In Island County, 21 change applications have been processed in the past two years, while there are five waiting review and approximately 80 water rights applications waiting to be processed.

The backlog, which goes back to the early 1990s, made it difficult for housing to be built in the county, said Doug Kelly, hydrogeologist for Island County.

"There are a lot of homeowners and property owners that couldn't build their homes," Kelly said.

Eliminating the backlog also encourages development of larger, better-managed water systems, Kelly said.

A six-connection water system that pumps less than 5,000 gallons a day is the largest type not requiring an application from the Ecology Department.

Kelly added that such water systems don't have the safeguards or quality control of larger systems. He said regulating such systems "shifts the burden from the Department of Ecology to the county."

Island County is one of two counties in the state to have two ecology staff workers sorting through the backlog, Kelly said. The water rights changes backlog was created because the DOE didn't have the staff to process the applications.

In the early 1990s, the budget cuts made by the Legislature left the DOE without adequate staff, said Kurt Hart, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology.

He added that it took until 2001 for the staffing levels to return to normal, with 50 employees processing applications statewide.

In addition to limited numbers of employees, the amount of time needed for processing applications has increased.

"They aren't rubber-stamped anymore," said Jerry Liszak, hydrologist for the Department of Ecology.

He added that it should take a month to process an application -- if all the paperwork is in order. In the 1980s it took two to three days to process an application.

The additional time is needed to ensure the water quality, check for factors such as seawater intrusion and to see if the proposal threatens other systems.

The state Department of Ecology is required to review every water rights application.

There are other options to take a water right change application. The Conservancy Board is appointed by the county commissioners and are trained by the Department of Ecology and can review water right changes but not new applications.

Liszak said that of the 19 change applications processed by the county, two were reviewed by the Conservancy Board.

Still another would be to pay the DOE to hire a private contractor to conduct reviews although final approval rests with the ecology department. However, there are several requirements that have to be met and hiring a contractor is a bit pricey and can cost more around $13,000.

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