WRIA 55/Little Spokane River Streamflow Restoration

The Little Spokane River Watershed (WRIA 55) is a closed watershed, which means there are no new water rights available. In 2016 the “Hirst Decision” extended that closure to also include new homes using individual wells and required Counties to consider the closure when issuing building permits. In 2018 the Washington Legislature enacted the Streamflow Restoration law, which allows Counties to issue building permits for new homes using an individual well in certain closed watersheds including WRIA 55, contingent on the required development of a plan. The plan must identify how much water the projected number of new homes built between 2018 and 2038 will use on an annual basis. It also requires a set of projects that offset the new water use by increasing streamflow or improving aquatic habitat. Further information is available at the following links:

Background

In 1976 the Washington Department of Ecology adopted an instream flow rule for the Little Spokane Watershed or WRIA 55 (WAC 173-555).  This rule established policies for Ecology to follow when issuing water rights.  In accordance with the rule, Ecology is no longer able to issue new water rights in WRIA 55.  Ecology did not interpret the rule to apply to single domestic wells.  In 2016, a Washington Supreme Court Decision, often referred to as the “Hirst Decision”, found that rules such as the one in WRIA 55 did apply to single domestic wells, and that Counties cannot issue building permits in watersheds where no water is legally available.  As a result, Spokane County was not able to issue building permits for new homes using single domestic wells in WRIA 55 between November 2016 and January 2018.

In January 2018 the Washington Legislature enacted ESSB 6091 to address the inability of Counties to issue building permits for homes using individual wells in watersheds with instream flow rules.  The law, called the Streamflow Restoration Act and codified as RCW 90.94, allows Counties to issue building permits for homes using individual wells, but requires that an existing watershed plan developed pursuant to RCW 90.82 be updated. It must include an estimate of how much water will be used by homes projected to be built between 2018 and 2038 and development of a set of projects to offset that water use by increasing streamflow and improving aquatic habitat.

The RCW 90.82 watershed plan for WRIA 55 was developed by a local group of stakeholders called a planning unit and adopted by the three counties that have jurisdiction in WRIA 55 – Spokane, Stevens, and Pend Oreille Counties.  This group reconvened to update the watershed plan to meet the requirements of RCW 90.94.  The update which is documented in an addendum to the existing watershed plan was locally approved in November 2020 and adopted by Ecology in January 2021.