Saving Puget Sound: A Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century

Chapter 11. Not Enough Water: Planning Can Only Do So Much

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569834.ch11

Subject to existing rights all waters within the state belong to the public, and any right thereto, or to the use thereof, shall be hereafter acquired only by appropriation for a beneficial use and in the manner provided and not otherwise; and, as between appropriations, the first in time shall be the first in right….[Emphasis added; Washington State Water Code, Revised Code of Washington 90.03.010]

Washington poses some of the most difficult challenges for managing water of any state in the country. No other state has a wider range of rainfall: from 120 or more inches annually along the coast to less than 10 inches in the interior Columbia basin.1 Water is also used very differently across Washington. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey of water use in Washington in 2000 estimated that domestic use accounted for 63% of all withdrawals in the Puget Sound area; industry consumed 77% of withdrawals in southwest Washington; and agriculture dominated with 87% of withdrawals in eastern Washington (Lane 2004; R.C. Lane, U.S. Geological Survey, personal communication). This enormous variation makes it extremely difficult to set statewide standards for water management. Balancing human and ecological needs in Washington is further challenged by bad timing. Unlike much of the rest of the country, the greatest demand for water in Puget Sound and most of the state is when water is least naturally available (see Figure 11-1).

That being said, Washington’s heritage of water law—which it largely shares with other western states—mostly adds to these problems. As stated in Washington’s water code, the most fundamental principle of this heritage is that “the first in time shall be the first in right” (Revised Code of Washington [RCW] 90.03.10). This means early users of water always have priority over later users. The latter include fish and wildlife, since their needs were recognized by state law only beginning in the early 1970s. Known as the “prior appropriation” doctrine, this policy was developed to encourage early settlement and economic development in the West. It assured miners and irrigators who invested in putting scarce water to use that other people would not come along later and cut off their supplies.