On Wednesday, the Lewis County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously to take the next step toward creating a water bank by drafting a contract with AMP Insights, a consulting firm.
The firm will be paid to do preliminary research on water rights available in the county and discover costs and feasibility of establishing a bank.
“The short answer is this is an incredibly complicated process,” said Commissioner Lindsey Pollock. “So we’re taking it one very small step at a time.”
In good news for taxpayers and the BOCC, this part of the process will likely cost far less than original estimates, according to Lewis County’s Housing and Infrastructure Specialist Eric Eisenberg. He did not give exact numbers when presenting on the topic this Wednesday.
A water bank is a concept in state law that allows the Department of Ecology to mark water rights as being used, therefore not being subject to relinquishment.
Water rights work on a use-it-or-lose-it basis, with rights holders having to prove that they use the amount of water their rights allow for or face losing them.
“The basic principle of the water bank is someone who owns the water rights puts it into the bank using an ecology process. And ecology treats that, makes a notation that it is being ‘used’ because it's being used in the bank,” Eisenberg said in an interview earlier this year.
In late April, Lewis County released requests for proposals to various consulting firms to establish a water bank. The request for proposals does not bind the county to creating a water bank, rather it outlines the costs and effects of establishing one.
“Which itself is a time-consuming and expensive process,” Eisenberg said. “From this quote that we received from there — even though they didn’t give us an explicit promise about monthly price — it is clear that it is far less than the budget estimate that I provided to you. … It will be much less expensive than I anticipated.”
Of the firms that replied, the BOCC on Wednesday chose AMP Insights at the behest of Pollock, who said the firm has more experience in Western Washington than other applicants.
Pollock has been the driving force behind the quest for a water bank.
A water bank would be one way to maintain access to water and could make water more available for residents and other entities in Lewis County.
The county’s research into water banking comes as water rights are becoming a hot topic throughout the western United States in the face of record drought. Another possible factor in Pollock’s motivation may be the potential of more water rights becoming available with TransAlta’s pending closure in 2025.
TransAlta’s water bank allows the company rights to 28,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Skookumchuck River whether it’s used or not.
TransAlta’s water bank is the largest year-round bank in the state. The Oroville-Tonasket Irrigation District water bank in Okanogan County is larger, at 33,000 acre-feet, but this water is only available for the approximately 150-day irrigation season.
It’s important to note, Eisenberg said previously, that water banks are not physical storage units hoarding water. It is an abstract concept in state law.
If the county had a water bank, it could lease rights out to interested parties such as businesses, farms and utilities.
If finalized, the contract will require AMP to establish the bank and then train county staff on operation of it, including how to secure more water rights in the future. Despite water’s scarcity in the west and the difficulty of securing water rights, because of their use-it-or-lose it quality, they can often be obtained from the dwindling dairy farming industry.